Hospital systems are experiencing a surge of covid-19 this month, and it will almost certainly take several months or longer in 2021 before people can resume their pre-pandemic lives. Indeed, now is the time to be more careful than ever.
President Trump’s erratic, unrealistic and untruthful leadership during the U.S. pandemic response left the country poorly prepared for the concerted fight needed to vanquish the coronavirus and made it vulnerable to a winter spike in cases and deaths, according to experts on pandemic leadership and mass psychology.
And with no sign that Trump is changing his approach from the White House, the challenge of uniting the nation against the coronavirus will fall to President-elect Joe Biden, who is pledging to enlist the public to quell the pandemic with an appeal based on science.
Biden will have a tricky task, observers say. He must counsel patience and continued mask-wearing, since most Americans will not have access to a vaccine until late spring or summer. The current vaccine timetable prioritizes health-care workers and the elderly residents of long-term care facilities, then essential workers.
At the same time, he will need to embark on a comprehensive education campaign to convince people that it is in their — and their neighbors’ — best interest to get vaccinated.
Most estimates say 60 to 70 percent of the population will need to have coronavirus antibodies in their system, through vaccination or by getting the virus, to achieve herd immunity and vanquish it.
But getting 70 percent of Americans to agree on anything is difficult under normal circumstances, and especially in a time of intense polarization and proliferation of baseless conspiracy theories.
“Until we reach herd immunity, which will be sometime next summer, we need to continue wearing masks and distancing,” said Jay Van Bavel, a psychology professor and director of the Social Identity and Morality Lab at New York University who has studied leadership messaging, political affiliation and public reactions during the pandemic.
The slow buildup of vaccine stockpiles through the first half of 2021 will give leaders more time to mount that persuasion campaign for those showing early reluctance, he added.
“We need to start selling people on the wisdom of taking the vaccine now, because polls show that a huge proportion of the population is hesitant to get vaccinated,” Van Bavel said. Gallup’s most recent polling in November found that 37 percent of Americans would not agree to get a coronavirus vaccine, an improvement from the 50 percent who would not agree in September.
Overcoming that hesitancy will require a broad-based education campaign from federal, state and local governments, featuring corporate and religious leaders, celebrities, sports stars and influencers, experts say. They will be up against an explosion of disinformation.
“Unfortunately, we have done a very good job of creating distorted and misleading narratives around this pandemic, and I still know individuals who say, ‘It’s just the bad flu, it’s a hoax,’ ” said Matthew W. Seeger, a professor and dean at Wayne State University in Detroit and co-author of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention manual on pandemic leadership and communication.
“We now have these wildly competing narratives, and we need to do a much better job of telling the truth about covid-19,” he said.
Trump sidelined the CDC and prevented it from disseminating crucial information about the spread of the coronavirus. Seeger said health-care advocates expect Biden to restore the CDC’s traditional public education mission.
“Traditionally the CDC would engage a variety of public health partners in messaging around these issues,” he said. “They would engage faith leaders, community leaders and people who are credible within communities.”
Just reciting statistics about vaccine effectiveness and safety will not sway people, Seeger added. Personal narratives and storytelling from trusted community members will strike a deeper chord.
“Saying that their neighbor is on a ventilator, those emotional stories may be a more effective way of communicating this than the medical facts,” Seeger said.
Biden introduced his health-care team Tuesday with a pledge to level with the American people. He has repeatedly told voters to prepare for a “dark winter,” making clear that he does not intend to sugarcoat the months-long battle ahead.
“I know we’ve all had a lot of sleepless nights this year, so many of you staring at the ceiling late at night, worrying if you’re going to be okay,” he said. “All I can tell you is the truth. Things may well get worse before they get better.”
There are clear signs the incoming administration is concerned about societal divisions handicapping mobilization efforts. Vivek H. Murthy, a physician and Biden’s nominee for surgeon general, remarked on the level of division in the nation after his introduction by the president-elect.
“The best policies — and the best vaccines and treatments — will not heal our nation unless we overcome the fear, anxiety, anger and distrust so many Americans are feeling right now,” Murthy said.
Van Bavel and colleagues have found that people in Republican counties, during the coronavirus crisis, have participated in spatial distancing at lower rates while more frequently visiting nonessential businesses. Conservatives also tended to underestimate their risk of catching the virus, according to Van Bavel’s research.
There is concern the divide will spill into vaccination acceptance. Gallup polling from November showed 50 percent of Republicans were willing to get vaccinated, compared with 75 percent of Democrats.
“One of the major problems is the polarized reaction to the risks of the pandemic, which has been led by President Trump but amplified by right-wing media,” Van Bavel said. “This could create a perfect storm for the continuation of the pandemic in Republican parts of the country well after Democratic regions have it under control.”
The current coronavirus surge, which has struck a number of Republican-leaning states that were spared in the beginning of the pandemic, could help convince greater numbers of people to accept the vaccine.
People also tend to rally around blood drives, food donations and volunteer work in the wake of hurricanes and earthquakes, altruism that could be tapped for a common coronavirus response, Seeger said.
Biden could appeal to citizens’ sense of patriotism to get vaccinated and wear masks, a bid to unify people against a common enemy. And bipartisanship also could go a long way, advocates said. Republican leaders — including Trump, who is getting credit for spurring vaccine development — may throw their weight behind vaccination drives once the vaccine becomes more widely available.
“You really want to appeal to people’s sense that what they are doing, it’s not for them — it’s for other people: ‘Take this because its going to protect people in long-term care facilities and protect people with autoimmune disorders,’ ” said Peter Harms, a management professor at the University of Alabama who studies leadership. “Like in war, it’s an act of patriotism, and we need everyone to get on board with it.”