How does one describe a country in which, over three months into the COVID-19 crisis, the president announces that the Centers for Disease Control has advocated the wearing of masks when people leave their home but indicates that he will not be doing so? On that same day, the governor of the state in which those same Centers for Disease Control are located states, «we didn’t know» that people could be asymptomatic but still have the virus. When anyone who has been watching US news for even an hour would know basic facts about the coronavirus, as the coverage is nonstop, how can a governor claim such ignorance?
The problem with the handling of COVID-19 in the United States has been more political than public health-related. If decisions had been made by medical and health experts rather than politicians, lessons would have been learned by how other countries handled the pandemic before the US became its epicenter. It is true that there was much ignorance everywhere about this virus, but this lack of information was not the key factor that led to the terrible handling of the crisis in the US. In addition to the strongly individualistic nature of the culture, the volatile political situation contributed in important ways to the spread of the virus. When a country has a president who «didn’t know» and thought that «most people didn’t know» that the flu can kill people, what can be expected in terms of the handling of a pandemic? The Democratic opponents of the president have not responded strongly enough to the crisis out of fear of further alienating voters in the upcoming presidential election. For reasons that remain a mystery, supporters of the current US President continue to support him despite his poor handling of this crisis.
In addition to the volatile political situation in the US, there are historical and cultural factors that have influenced our poor handling of the crisis. Many US citizens do not want to be told what to do. This is not unique to the US but is a key factor for us. The government is based on state-control more than on federal control. The US government is not set up to mandate a national lockdown. US citizens are very used to getting what we want and not having to do without. The nature of our very capitalistic economy is also antithetical to the kinds of actions that would prioritize health over the stock market.
«We have research on how this crisis is presented in the media but little that looks at using message strategies to convince people of the need to stay home»
This crisis has been described as «the great equalizer» but it is not. It is hitting the poor, minorities, and the disabled much more than it is hurting the privileged. The US was very poorly prepared for any health crisis; we didn’t think that such things could affect us. The few resources that are available are not accessible to those in need. Our lack of universal health care continues to hurt us. The people who are most likely to be hurt economically are also the less privileged.
As the editor of one of the leading health communication journals in the world, Health Communication, I have been struck by the lack of research that has been conducted on pandemics. We have research on how this crisis is presented in the media but little that looks at using message strategies to convince people of the need to stay home. A few years ago, I served on a working group for the World Health Organization designed to develop communication strategies for health crises. This group was convened because the WHO had no data-based recommendations! All strategies were anecdotal and based on experience rather than research. If we look at the world today, we still do not see much strategic communication being put in place to change behavior in regard to COVID-19. There is theory and research on which we could rely, but I see little application of it in this world crisis.