Robert Gehrke: We need to get past the COVID shaming for public health’s sake

It would be healthier to find less risky alternatives to socializing.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

After the Thanksgiving holiday, you probably noticed a flurry of social media posts with people calling out their neighbors for having a dozen people over for dinner. Or maybe you’ve seen the complaints of people not wearing masks in stores or a delivery driver who had a mask below the nose.

I’m guilty of it, at least privately basking in the moral superiority of doing the “right thing,” while judging the intelligence or callousness of people who aren’t. Chances are, you have, too.

“We’ve seen, in lots of places, a bit of descent into a blame game, shame game,” said Heidi Tworek, a professor at the University of British Columbia, who co-authored a study about effective communication responses to the pandemic. “Let’s all admit there’s some satisfaction in that. ‘Oh, look, there are people doing worse things than I am.’”

Here’s the problem: That kind of finger-pointing and tsk-tsking isn’t helping, according to some public health experts, and may actually be undermining our coronavirus response.

“As a child of the ’80s, I remember when Nancy Reagan said, ‘Just say no,’” said Gregg Gonsalves, a professor of epidemiology at Yale School of Medicine. “The ‘Just say no’ approach to living doesn’t work. It doesn’t work with sex, it doesn’t work with drugs.”

And, it seems, it doesn’t work with COVID-19.

For those with kids, try telling them not to play a violent video game or see a certain movie and it’s a safe bet they will be even more determined to find a way to do it. So what did we expect would happen when we told them not to see their friends or get within 6 feet of anyone?

Still, it’s never made sense that some people are so stridently opposed to wearing masks. It seems like such a small thing. And, yes, masks unfortunately got politicized, but it also could at least partly be chalked up to a contrarian streak — don’t tell me what to do — and no amount of public shaming will change that.

Given that context, how do we respond and, as we head into the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, how do we better communicate to our families and those around us the importance of trying to avoid a post-holiday surge in infections?

Tworek and her colleagues studied the COVID communications in nine democratic countries around the world to identify what worked and what didn’t and one of their key findings is that orders and mandates don’t work as well as convincing people to take precautions on their own.

Politicians are generally not the best people to be in the spotlight when it comes to communicating the message, she said. It works better coming from public health officials or faith leaders. And a good long-term strategy is more important in a protracted pandemic than short-term messaging.

Gonsalves says we need to incentivize people to do the right thing and the most effective ways to do that is to make doing the right thing easier — things like giving away masks for free or paying people so they can afford to not work.

Another way is, rather than just saying “stay home, don’t socialize,” find ways to offer less-risky options for people who will socialize regardless.

That could mean creating venues where people can meet outdoors, an ice-skating rink, for example, or underneath tents with space heaters, a place outside of their crammed homes where they can have better ventilation and distance.

“You can’t just say no. You have to say, ‘What can I do that’s safe?’ That’s going to be a spectrum,” Gonsalves said. “People are being creative and saying, ‘If no doesn’t work, what can I do to bring people in?’”

He added, “I want to cajole, urge, incentivize people to do the right thing, rather than hunting them down and telling them how bad they are.”

Nowhere is it more challenging to avoid close interaction than heading into Christmas and New Year’s. It will mean, Tworek said, having some potentially uncomfortable conversations with family members and trying to explain “that you not coming [for Christmas] doesn’t mean you don’t love them, that it’s in fact an act of love that you’re not going to be there.”

None of this, in my mind, is meant to condone or excuse huge, risky gatherings — like the Halloween party in Utah County with thousands of young people — that show blatant disregard for the wellbeing of others.

But as we head into the new year and as we perhaps near the final chapter on this pandemic, maybe we can be a little more understanding that pandemic fatigue is real, we are social creatures and rather than castigating people who aren’t doing enough, channel some of that energy into helping them do what they can, as safely as they can, and maybe do even a little better.