Reality check: COVID doesn’t care about you. It feels no compassion, no regret about the millions it’s killed. It isn’t concerned with the time of year, or the news cycle, or politics. It’s not taking a break for Christmas. It definitely doesn’t care that we’re all burnt out and tired of hearing about it.
The coronavirus is nothing more than a bundle of genetic material. All it cares about—if it’s capable of “feeling” anything—is infecting people, so it can replicate itself and infect more people.
We humans, on the other hand, do care.
But we’re tired. And our collective fatigue is making some people careless – one reason COVID-19 is rising sharply again throughout the U.S.
How can health and safety advocates convince people the coronavirus is still worth caring about? We dug around and found some answers (with key points emphasized in bold text).
Johns Hopkins: Tips for Overcoming COVID Fatigue
Johns Hopkins Medicine recently published an article featuring recommendations from Carisa Parrish, M.A., Ph.D. anyone can use to avoid COVID fatigue and better protect themselves and others.
First, says Dr. Parrish, it’s important to recognize that safety is a habit rather than a one-time behavior. And when it comes to habits, gaining that initial momentum is the hardest part:
“Trying to adhere to anything extra is always a challenge. You can add extra steps to your routine for a few days, but sustained behavior change is hard. Especially when no one around you is sick, and you just don’t feel like wearing a mask or saying no to things you like to do. But the fact is, the precautions work.”
To make safety habits as easy to adopt as possible, Dr. Parrish recommends the following:
- Make a commitment.
- Stay flexible as recommendations change.
- Practice precautions until they’re second nature.
- Keep necessary supplies handy.
- Use stories to understand risks and consequences.
Advice from the Frontlines on Battling COVID Apathy
In Forbes, Dr. Joshua Liao—a University of Washington physician who’s part of the Coronavirus Frontlines contributor group—examines the causes of COVID fatigue, explaining that humans “are poorly-equipped to handle threats like COVID-19”:
“Over time, humans have developed systems for responding to immediate dangers, like oncoming cars at a crosswalk. Cognitively, these threats can tap into what some have described as our system 1 thinking: fast, intuitive, and almost automatic ways of processing and reacting to information. Biology is also at play. Imminent threats can trigger reflexive ‘fight or flight’ responses—quickened breath, flushed skin, trembling muscles—that rapidly prepare us to fight or flee.
We don’t have this wiring for distant threats. Humans are famously bad at assessing risk, particularly in the long-term. As a species, we can also be prone to hyperbolic discounting, the concept that describes our tendency to prefer smaller, immediate rewards over larger, deferred ones.”
Dr. Liao believes that the right leadership from public officials and business decision-makers can help overcome not only our species’ wiring, but the persistent problem of misinformation. He writes:
“[L]eaders should maintain communication strategies for sharing COVID-related information with constituents and employees. This work may not seem like a top priority given how prominent COVID-19 remains in the national news cycle. But communication is now as critical as ever given the sheer amount of information—and misinformation—that exists about the pandemic.
Leaders can cut through that noise and combat apathy using principles from behavioral science. For instance, leaders can frame information about COVID-19 in ways that are most salient to constituents and employees. Communications can leverage the power of social influence and ‘COVID-19 social network tracing’ to highlight the immediacy of the pandemic and its relevance to one’s social circles. Importantly, leaders can use communications to acknowledge and address attribution bias, thereby promoting mutual understanding between individuals with different views.”
(Be sure to check another one of Dr. Liao’s recent articles, as well: “Why We Should Resist Over-Optimism About Covid-19 Vaccines.”)
More Recommendations from Psychologists, Public Health Authorities, and Communications Experts
Here are a few additional thoughts, via a November 2020 article in The Guardian about reaching people and persuading them about COVID risks, regardless of their deeply-held beliefs.
Emma Frances Bloomfield, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, recommends getting personal and emphasizing the positive outcomes of safety:
“People should talk about why they have made the decision to stay home, to wear a mask and to socially distance. Frame it as a gain: ‘This is what I’m doing, and this is why I’m doing it,’ as opposed to a loss: ‘You’re not doing these things, and you’re wrong for not doing them.’”
Dr. Seema Yasmin, director of the Stanford Health Communication Initiative, says it’s vital to demonstrate empathy and offer a hopeful vision of the future:
“It can help to acknowledge that this sucks and is terrible. Acknowledge that COVID fatigue is real, [and] that we should not be in this mess … [T]here are models and best practices that end transmission. Look at New Zealand or Taiwan or Vietnam. I point to a picture of folks from New Zealand in May at the farmers’ market, hugging each other. We will get out of this.”
We’re (Still) in This Together
The COVID pandemic won’t last forever. People are getting vaccinated, healthcare providers are continuing to learn how to better treat the disease, and a few countries have successfully eliminated community spread.
Here and now in the US, however, we have a lot of work to do before life returns to normal. Only by working together will we make it through the pandemic. It’s up to all of us to care—about ourselves and each other—and to choose to act with our brains and our hearts. If we don’t, we’re no better than the virus.
For more COVID-19 information and health and safety guidance, visit KPA’s Coronavirus Resource Center.
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