We also find that Americans overwhelmingly trust medical experts as a source of information — far more so than political leaders. That’s super important in a society where some people in recent years have attacked the very notion of trusting science, expertise, and facts. But it's not just that trusted experts were sharing this information — like Anthony Fauci [director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases] or Deborah Birx [from the U.S. Department of State], or public health officials across the country…. It’s the way
they communicated these basic facts to the mass public. In our work [with our colleagues from George Mason University], we often emphasize a basic guideline for effective communication: simple clear messages, repeated often, repeated often, repeated often, by a variety of trusted sources.
Public health officials and the media have been communicating these key facts and behaviors over and over and over again. “Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds...” How many times have you heard that
statement? How many times have you seen people demonstrating it with simple mnemonics, like, “Sing Happy Birthday twice while you’re doing it”? Or demonstration videos by comedians
and even hamsters
? These are simple but incredibly important ways to help a population of over 300 million people to suddenly, collectively, adopt a new set of behaviors. Again, simple, clear messages repeated often, by a variety of trusted sources.
This crisis is forcing all Americans to make sacrifices and accept enormous disruptions to their lives. What do your results say about their appetite to continue doing so?
Well, there are obviously tradeoffs between protecting public health and restarting the economy. Leaders across the country are being forced to make critical choices — and not just at the federal level, but in all state governments, city governments, and so on. So we wanted to understand: is there a sizable proportion of Americans who want to reopen the economy? And what we’ve found, to our surprise, is that by a margin of more than five to one, Americans said that stopping the spread of the coronavirus, even if it harms the economy (84 percent) is more important than stopping the decline in the economy, even if more people get infected (16 percent).
We then broke it down by demographic and political affiliation and the findings were even more revealing. Very large majorities prioritized stopping the epidemic, across all demographics — gender, race, ethnicity, income, education levels, urban to rural. Even large majorities of people who reported losing their job because of the coronavirus or who are looking for work. Even across political lines: more than 75 percent of Republicans — and more than 75 percent of 2016 Trump voters. We found that there is actually a strong national consensus that public health should come first — or at least there has been. Of course, in the past few days we’ve seen the emergence of this new “Liberate” movement … Unfortunately, the epidemic is becoming increasingly politicized. So, as with everything else with this virus, this is fast evolving story.
Do you see similarities between this issue and how the politics of climate change have evolved over the past two decades as that issue, too, increasingly became used as a political instrument?
There are some fundamental differences between COVID-19 and climate change, but there are also a lot of parallels, too. In December and January, it was already very clear what was going to happen, at least among people who pay attention to data and evidence and who understand how models work. Even if experts didn’t know the all the particulars of this virus, epidemics are well understood and it was clear that this one was spreading rapidly around the world and was absolutely going to impact the United States.
But for most people at the time, nobody that they
knew had gotten Covid-19, because very few people in the United States had been diagnosed with it. So many people thought, “Well, this is something that’s happening over in China, not something that we need to worry about here.” The problem, of course, is that by the time you have finally do
experience the impacts, it’s too late to head them off. That’s actually very similar to climate change where, again, scientists have very clearly warned us — literally for decades now — global warming is real, it’s human caused, it’s already harming people, and the consequences are going to get much, much worse if we don’t act now. And yet, because most people don’t see it in their own lives, they often disregard it, discount it, or even dismiss the existence of the problem.