I argued a lot last year that the most important role the federal government had to play in managing the health crisis, aside from the behind-the-scenes work with streamlining vaccine development, was public messaging.
While state governors implemented guidelines and policies (some more successfully than others), the federal government should have done whatever it could have to raise public awareness of the threat, and aggressively and consistently advocate for practices that would help mitigate the virus’s spread.
In my view, there should have been a steady stream of informative PSAs on television, radio, and the Internet illustrating the importance of things like social distancing and mask-wearing, how to do them properly, and exactly why they mattered. The campaign could have featured people of public influence in different arenas of American culture (leaders, athletes, celebrities, etc.), perhaps targeting demographics with which they have a particular connection.
But that largely didn’t happen. Instead, the federal government’s top executive, President Trump, grossly downplayed the virus, mocked mask-wearing, misrepresented statistics, hyped “miracle drugs,” routinely contradicted the words of his own health experts, and threw super-spreader events across the nation.
The stunning negligence and conscious misdirection assuredly made matters far worse than they ever needed to be, adding to the number of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, and leaving much of the public confused and even indifferent to the threat we were (and still are) dealing with.
Others in positions of leadership also deserve blame.
Numerous state and city leaders, who advocated for strong mitigation measures, were caught brazenly violating those measures themselves. Actions speak louder than words, and those actions sent a terrible message.
It seems that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was more than simply inept in his management of multiple aspects of the crisis in his state. It now appears that his administration was actively manipulating health data, in an attempt to save political face, that other institutions were relying on to better handle the crisis. That, of course, would go beyond bad messaging and warrant severe consequences — possibly legal ones.
The CDC, Dr. Fauci, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, and many other health experts actively discouraged mask-wearing in the early weeks of the health crisis, citing ineffectiveness instead of their true concern of supply issues for first-responders. This was a more consequential misstep than any of them could have ever imagined, being that partisan politicians (including Trump) and media figures have, ever since, used that incident as a political wedge to stoke doubt in the science.
But now we’re in a different stage of the health crisis. Multiple vaccines (with a high level of effectiveness) have been developed. They’re being distributed and administered throughout the country. New COVID-19 infections have dropped almost 75% since mid-January. The number of hospitalizations has decreased for 40 straight days. Daily deaths are beginning to fall as well. The warmer weather, and more people getting back outside, should help too.
There’s a sense of optimism in the air, or at least there should be. Yet, the messaging we’ve been getting from the federal government and much of the media still portrays a grim picture.
As President Biden reminded us last week, over half a million Americans have died from COVID-19, and even with trend-lines shooting downward, we’ll likely see another 60,000 American deaths in the next month alone. For some perspective (something often lost on this topic), a lot of people believed a year ago that no more than 60,000 Americans would die in total during the pandemic.
We’ve been hearing a lot about new strains of the virus, and that the vaccines may not be as effective against some of them. We’ve also been hearing, including from Dr. Fauci, about mask-wearing possibly remaining part of our societal routine for the foreseeable future, perhaps even into next year.
After the year we’ve all been through, there’s certainly some rationale for taking a conservative approach, and erring on the side of caution. One can understand why the Biden administration and medical experts would be reluctant to over-promise an end to such a devastating crisis.
Thus, with this new phase of the health crisis comes a new challenge on the issue of public messaging. The nation could certainly use its spirits lifted, and there are bright lights emerging at the end of the tunnel to warrant it. At the same time, we’re not out of the woods yet, and an early abandonment of mitigation practices by those who have yet to be vaccinated could create a lot of unnecessary pain, and delay our national recovery.
There’s also the problem of 30% of the country still saying they won’t take the COVID-19 vaccine. This includes 50% of all Republicans, which I would argue is a lasting effect of a year of reckless rhetoric from prominent right-wing voices insisting that the crisis was overblown all along. Origins aside, when such people hear that even if they’re vaccinated, they may still have to wear masks for several more months (possibly until 2022), I can’t imagine many of them being compelled to change their mind.
So, what’s the correct messaging balance going forward on the health crisis? It’s actually a much more difficult question to answer than it was prior to the release of the vaccines, when mitigation was still society’s best shield against the virus.
Personally, I come down on the side of optimism, and not crowding out today’s plentiful good news with the bad. America could use that psychological boost. But it’s important that we learn from the terrible mistakes made last year. The messaging needs to be grounded in the truth, and it also needs to be led by example.
The Biden administration can’t continue deferring to teacher unions over covid science, as they’ve been doing. Mitigation efforts should be well communicated, and tied to conditions on the ground. As elected officials continue to ask the public to forgo certain practices, they need to make sure that they themselves are doing the same. When there are setbacks, let the public know. When things are going better than expected, let them know that too. Confidence and optimism can be promoted without deceiving those you’re trying to uplift.
Right now, America needs a shot in the arm… both literally and figuratively. Smart, responsible communication can assist with both.
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