The reaction was so swift and so negative not because of any policy measure announced, but merely for what was said — and not said. Trump’s speech, in the words of The Washington Post, was “riddled with errors, nationalist and xenophobic in tone, limited in its empathy, and boastful of both his own decisions and the supremacy of the nation he leads.”
Unlike most situations during the past three-plus years of Trump’s bombast and brimstone, a communications failure in the face of a pandemic amounts to not just a political problem; it is a public health problem. Communications can also be the solution: What is needed to help mitigate the severity of the coronavirus epidemic is a few, simple messages delivered by the right messengers. We need a whole-of-culture response — not just political leaders, but also the most influential athletes, actors, social media influencers, singers and personalities using every medium at our disposal to encourage Americans to change their behavior and inspire us to stick with it.
Simply, it is not time for Trump; it is time for Taylor Swift.
In studying people’s reaction to AIDS prevention messages, Kim Witte of Michigan State University found that for effective risk communication to occur, people need to perceive the threat, know what effective actions to take to alleviate that threat and come to believe they can take those actions — and that these actions would work.
Others have found that effective public health communication happens when people are provided with these messages in a simple way, repeated often, by a variety of trusted sources. This is especially true in times of stress, as stressed people have been shown to be less able to process complex and confusing information.
From the start with the novel coronavirus, the public has heard a variety of conflicting messages. While public health officials and experts were warning of a serious pandemic, the president said, falsely, that they should “view this the same as the flu,” “when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away,” “is very much under control in the USA” and a vaccine is on its way.
Compounding this misinformation is the polarization of the country and the news diets that inform them. The conservative media has parroted the line from the White House, minimizing risks and blaming the coronavirus scare on the “deep state” or China. It is no surprise then that, according to a recent poll by YouGov, Democrats are more than twice as likely than Republicans to say they are worried about the coronavirus.
With the market crash, school closings and reduced travel, future surveys may find that the broader public has come to appreciate the seriousness of the threat. But this does not mean Americans will do what is needed to mitigate the effects of the virus.
Indeed, now is when we need to communicate — over and over again — the simple things Americans can do (wash their hands, refrain from handshaking and keep their distance) and why (to protect our neighbors and communities). We need these messages communicated by the most trusted people in the nation on every platform and as creatively as possible.
At the government level, in addition to the conflicting and inaccurate messages from the White House, the official channels for information are rudimentary. The CDC’s website on covid-19 seems stuck in the past century — with few videos, animations or memes to engage the public and be shared on social media. Unlike previous public health crises (e.g., the 2001 anthrax scare or the HIV/AIDS epidemic), there have been no national mailings to inform American households how to respond to the epidemic, warnings that may be especially valuable to those people with less access to digital media.
Compare this to the government of Vietnam, where the Ministry of Health reached out to a popular singer to create a spinoff of one of her songs as a catchy animated PSA about fighting coronavirus. This video, which was released on the singer’s YouTube channel, went viral and has sparked a TikTok global dance challenge with millions of views and countless adaptations. Other countries such as Thailand and the Philippines also have used TikTok to communicate the very basics of good coronavirus hygiene. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sat down for a video chat with the country’s deputy chief medical officer to interview her, an expert, about what the virus is and how to prevent its spread — and shared it with his 1.5 million Twitter followers.
It is time for the United States to follow this lead and corral our most influential citizens to join in the effort. We need political leaders to reach across the aisle and together deliver the same clear message about the virus. That starts with not calling it the “Wuhan virus,” and it also means not going on television and shaking hands with a tightly gathered group of advisers and media as Trump did on Friday.
Podcast stars and preachers need to take to their respective pulpits. LeBron James needs to tell his 45 million Twitter followers what is at stake and Kim Kardashian’s 162 million Instagram followers should hear from her. It is time for Lin-Manuel Miranda to drop a rap about washing your hands, Tim McGraw and Lee Ann Womack should record a duet about pulling together to protect America — and the next time Bart Simpson takes to the blackboard he should be writing: “I will always keep my distance.”
Late-night comedy shows and YouTube stars should deploy comedy to remind people of what they need to do, and Silicon Valley firms, with their unparalleled global reach, should alter their platforms to make key prevention messages highly salient in news feeds, search and across their sites.
The creative possibilities are endless, but the imperative is clear: With the direction set by the CDC, we need everyone across the culture to urge their fellow Americans to do their part. In decades past when facing a national crisis, celebrities have stepped up. Now, with stadiums and ballparks closed, Broadway dark and Disneyworld shuttered, these stars have a lot of time on their hands. To beat covid-19, we should put them to work.