U.S. public health officials are not just scrambling to prepare for the possibility of coronavirus spreading across America. They’re also watching what they say.
But, health communication researcher Bruce Lambert thinks health officials aren’t going far enough in conveying the dangers of coronavirus. And he worries that White House interference in health communication could have major consequences if the number of Americans infected picks up.
“It’s critical to give people truthful and accurate information,” said Lambert, who teaches at Northwestern University, “and treat people like responsible, intelligent adults.”
Lambert sat down with midday host Lisa Labuz to talk about managing panic and why coronavirus shouldn’t be compared to the flu. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What do health officials get wrong when informing the public?
Fear is an excellent motivator to behavior, and we want to motivate people to take certain precautions to protect themselves and their vulnerable friends and families and neighbors. Arousing some fear by talking about real risks is a perfectly legitimate way of communicating.
Public officials make the mistake of over-reassuring the public, and this is especially damaging to their credibility if things do get worse.
What about sounding alarmist?
Fear is an interesting phenomenon from the point of view of communication. Fear gets people’s attention. In an attention economy, we’re all battling for an audience and clicks. We have to be cautious about that … but we’re trying to arouse legitimate fears so people take precautions. … The very act of preparing or making decisions helps people confront and process their fears.
This desire to tell people not to panic transforms into this idea that we shouldn’t be afraid at all. But there’s, of course, reason to be afraid.
What do you think of the news that the White House is requiring all health officials to coordinate their statements to the public through the office of Vice President Mike Pence?
Effective risk communication, and especially effective scientific progress against the outbreak itself, depends on the free flow of scientific information.
As someone who is concerned about public health, I’m really, really concerned about the public health consequences of politicizing the response to the epidemic. … If it gets worse, we’re going to need some sense of solidarity and nonpartisan effort and potentially shared sacrifice in order to get through it.
There are fears among public health and communication people … that scientists are going to be censored and muzzled in some way, and not able to communicate freely about their science-based opinions and beliefs, about recommendations, about what should be done. … It will take a week or so probably to figure out whether this is having a chilling effect on the scientists or whether this is just an administrative sort of move.
What’s wrong with comparing coronavirus to the seasonal flu?
People are talking about [how] we should be more afraid of the flu than we are of coronavirus. And since most people aren’t very afraid of the flu, maybe we shouldn’t be afraid at all. There are a lot of flaws in that messaging. We should probably be more afraid of the flu than we are given the number of people who get sick and die from the flu every year.
There are important differences that people can see with their common sense. When we tell people it’s less dangerous than the flu, people can see right through it because they [say], “Well, look, China doesn’t shut down entire cities because of the flu. … We don’t shut down air travel from countries because of the flu.”
I think comparisons to the flu are problematic, even though it is useful and relevant to and fair to remind people that in fact, as of today, the flu kills many, many, many thousands of times more people in the United States than the coronavirus does. It’s a complicated set of messages to try to get across to people.
How should the public distinguish who they should be paying attention to?
In the case of the risks like coronavirus, think of the Centers for Disease Control or the World Health Organization or major news outlets. Compare what they say to one another to try to get a sense for what’s a common message across these different sources.
Exercise healthy skepticism about far out stories that you might see on social media. Try to verify those with more credible sources and validate what you hear and what you learn against your own life experience and against common sense.
What can health officials learn about communication from past pandemics?
Right now we [can] get people to take precautions. … Some people sort of aren’t afraid enough and aren’t taking any precautions. Other people are afraid out-of-proportion to the actual risk. The different messages need to be tailored to those different audiences.
[At] the same time, we have to appeal to people’s resourcefulness, their courage, their past experience and their desire to help their friends and their families and their neighbors. These are powerful resources in what could be a challenging public health emergency.
So on top of everything else we tell people—to wash their hands and avoid large crowds and all this other stuff that the CDC is telling us—we can also encourage solidarity and remind people that even if things become very difficult and challenging and frightening, that we will get through it by working together.
Mary Hall is a digital producer at WBEZ.