The words spoken by public government officials matter; and more often than not, such words have real-life implications for the decisions people make and the actions they do or don’t take.
For example, much attention has been paid to President Biden’s recent declaration that the pandemic is “over”. On a recent episode of the broadcast news program 60 Minutes: “We still have a problem with COVID-19. We’re still doing a lot of work on it. But the pandemic is over . . . If you notice, no one’s wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape.” And although the president walked these statements back a few days later, the weight of those words were already felt, and the potential damage already done to current risk mitigation efforts.
While there may be nothing inherently untrue about any of these statements, their sentiment reinforces a pre-existing mental model Americans have of pandemics – in particular, regarding the behavior changes called for in the interest of public health over the last two years. In this case, the mental model of intentional risk mitigation acts such as public masking, staying up to date on vaccinations, and staying home when sick will no longer be necessary once the pandemic is over.
Declaring the pandemic over has created further division among two camps in the country. Those who agree with President Biden’s recent sentiments feel the emergency state of COVID-19 has stabilized and essentially ‘downgraded’ into an endemic disease, easily manageable like the seasonal flu (which continues to kill thousands of people each year). Those who disagree feel the pandemic is still widely unpredictable and dangerous, as evidenced by the fact that in addition to killing nearly 400 Americans from COVID-19 per day, it continues actively mutating and impacting people across the globe. Regardless of one’s position in this division, declaring the pandemic “over” has complicated the ongoing – and still necessary – public health efforts to fight COVID-19.
However the status of the pandemic is labeled, it continues to be a public health crisis in part because much of the early burden for risk mitigation was placed on individuals to change their behaviors (e.g. wear a mask, social distance, get vaccine/booster shots, etc.). It’s no surprise that as a population, we’ve grown somewhat complacent over time as the COVID-19 death toll no longer dominates our news or social media feeds. Much of this is understandable– gradually we will habituate to almost any new situation over time, even an emergency state. Moreover, the physical, social, and emotional toll of the pandemic has been difficult for many to bear and people are ready to move on. However, an authority making a declarative statement about the pandemic’s end has real-world implications for the way people perceive and respond to an ongoing crisis. Predictably, it can undermine behavioral recommendations made by public health officials to mitigate disease spread and protect its most vulnerable populations by making common-sense strategies – like wearing a mask in public when sick – seem less necessary. It also renders a government-run public health system that already suffers from lack of trustworthiness even weaker.
Beyond that, there are two key psychological principles — confirmation bias and decision fatigue — that help inform how people’s perceptions are formed, leading to behaviors that are either curbing the spread of COVID-19 or inadvertently contributing to its spread.
Confirmation bias is the process of seeking or interpreting evidence in ways that align with existing beliefs, expectations, or a hypothesis at hand. It explains our tendency to cherry-pick information that confirms our existing beliefs or ideas, and dismiss information that goes against those beliefs. Initially, widespread social media misinformation and medical distrust amongst some communities had a significant impact on people’s interpretation of whether or not they should adhere to standard risk-mitigation guidelines. President Biden’s recent remarks about the pandemic being “over” merely caused people to strengthen their existing personal beliefs about basic risk mitigation behaviors–people who agreed feel justified in discontinuing those behaviors, and people who disagreed feel justified in continuing them. Confirmation bias helped entrench existing inclinations to disregard COVID-19 recommendations, at precisely a time when we need more people to increase risk mitigation behaviors.
To address confirmation bias, change the context
Our first recommendation is to reframe “COVID-19 mitigation behaviors” as “behaviors that further public health.” In particular, the group of people in the “movable middle” may have been taking certain actions (such as wearing a mask, handwashing, and covering up coughs and sneezes) because they felt temporary and limited to the context of a pandemic. This group is probably most likely to stop those behaviors once that context is removed, especially if they see those behaviors as burdensome. Now that we’ve had a statement from the president declaring the pandemic to be over, many of these people will now see that as a reason to let go of those behaviors, even though many of them are basic public health practices that are beneficial even outside of a pandemic.
One potential way to address this response to the changed context is to work on detaching public health behaviors from the specific context of the pandemic. For example, sharing messaging that reframes what was previously “COVID-19 risk mitigation behaviors” as general “public health behaviors” that are evergreen. Repeating this evergreen advice and increasing coordination between public health entities/figureheads so that their messages are clear, consistent, and do not conflict can also help counter repeated misinformation and the confusion of ever-changing public health guidance.
Relatedly, we need to acknowledge that for many people (including people who are immunocompromised, elderly, or chronically ill), COVID will remain a major risk for the foreseeable future. We cannot leave these populations behind in our efforts to create a new normal. The early days of the pandemic forced us to confront the fact that many essential services have not been equally accessible to all, and many changes were made to increase accessibility–including more flexibility for things like telehealth services, paid sick leave, and virtual participation in classes, conferences, and other events. However, many of these options have gone away over the past year, taking with them many people’s ability to meaningfully participate in society and access essential services. Rather than viewing these options as pandemic-limited, we must reframe these accommodations as evergreen and continue to push for maintained (and improved) accessibility, which will be beneficial even in a COVID-free world.
Decision fatigue describes the act of choosing between options depleting self-control. It refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision-making. Since the onset of the pandemic, many people have been forced to make staggering pandemic priority decisions in a rapid and constantly changing environment. The pandemic has also made the process of making routine decisions seem unavoidably non-routine. Yet, following President Biden’s remarks, it seems that making mundane decisions should become easier. But at what cost or risk?
Should we attend our favorite band’s concert next summer, or would it be a safer bet to ask Alexa to shuffle their greatest hits? Should we continue to get booster shots, or run the risk of getting exposure to and passing on immune-evasive variants to vulnerable populations? These are examples of a number of decisions that add up to a state of decision fatigue, which wouldn’t ordinarily be part of our daily lives if it were not for the COVID-19 pandemic.
To address decision fatigue, increase slack
To help the group of people who might be fatigued from the past 2 ½ years of COVID-19 avoidance, we can find ways to reduce the burden on individuals to take action. This involves refocusing efforts away from only promoting the take-up of individual behaviors, spending more time on changing the behaviors of groups and organizations. For example, pushing for upgraded HVAC systems for improved ventilation can help remove some of the burden of individual masking at all times indoors.
As we shift to a new phase of the pandemic, complacency threatens to take away many of the gains we’ve made fighting COVID-19 over the last 2 ½ years and exposes us to continued and greater public health consequences in the future. It will take proven, behavioral science strategies to keep people safe. Regardless of what we believe the current status of the pandemic is, we still need the government and public health institutions to communicate clear, reliable messages that protect its residents and prepare us for the next health crisis that will inevitably arrive. This will require messaging that better frames peoples’ perceptions and does not discourage them from engaging in risk-reducing behaviors.