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Politics Clouding Public's Views On Coronavirus, Experts Say

President Donald Trump signs an $8.3 billion bill to fight the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., Friday, March 6, 2020 at the White House in Washington, as Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, looks on.
Associated Press
President Donald Trump signs an $8.3 billion bill to fight the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., Friday, March 6, 2020 at the White House in Washington, as Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, looks on.

More than 130,000 people have contracted the novel coronavirus. The death toll — around 5,000 — is causing some panic, while some people are unfazed. KPBS science and technology reporter Shalina Chatlani talked to two UC San Diego social scientists about the reaction to coronavirus and how it relates to past epidemics.

Politics Clouds Publics View Of Coronavirus

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

On a recent rainy day on the UC San Diego campus, we caught up with medical anthropologist Bonnie Kaiser and mass communication expert Dan Hallin.


Hallin said misinformation on coronavirus has been similar to past epidemics. There are theories of bioweapons, the virus being created in a lab, among others. Most people, he said, have been looking to the Center for Disease Control and other mainstream media for information. But with this epidemic, he says there is a political force driving how information on the virus is being shaped.

DANIEL HALLIN: There is always a certain amount of misinformation, and that's an important public health concern. A lot of what you see in this epidemic is really familiar from other epidemics. With this epidemic to the extent that there is misinformation circulating, the main driver of it, I would say, is cable television.

And one important thing that's going on right now is a kind of a debate within conservative media. So you have one set of arguments in conservative media that this virus is being way over hyped and is being over-hyped by the enemies of President Trump, including the fake news media. And then there is another point of view that says, no, this is real and we really have to take it seriously.

SHALINA CHATLANI: Bonnie, you study human behavior, how do you feel about this type of messaging?

BONNIE KAISER: So some people are certainly panicking, buying all the toilet paper, and then some people are just feeling very unconcerned. And I think particularly it's because they're not seeing anything really happening around them. So a lot of the messaging is around trying to convince people that they should be concerned and they should be acting now.


We tend to think — as a biomedical or epidemiological scientists — that we can just kind of give health information, we can get facts, and that will be enough to convince people. And anthropology research has really shown that that's not the case. So we really need to think about what are the things that matter most to people. So thinking about values, you know, thinking about what drives people's decisions and behaviors and having the messaging be focused around that.

SC: Dan, you actually wrote a book where one part of it looked into the response to the swine flu. Are we seeing kind of a repeat of the same type of communication with the coronavirus going in the case of the swine flu?

DH: In the case of the swine flu, I would say that the public health officials, it was very successful from the point of view of what public health officials call “risk communication.” I mean, they kept the balance. They kept their trust. So all of the conspiracy theories didn't start circulating a lot. It's going to be harder this time around, partly because the task is so much more difficult.

There's always an important question about who's going to take the lead in the messaging. I would say it works best when the public health officials do. But, we’re in a situation right now where we have a president who is suspicious of science and scientists. It’s been interesting to watch Dr. Anthony Fauci,(director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) — sometimes in the same room as Trump — carefully trying to correct him, “No, it’s not going to be two months for a vaccine, it’s going to be 12-18 months.”

SC: Practically speaking, are we past the point of being able to change the messaging?

DH: You know, officials send out their messages, but people also react to what they see … They see images on local TV. And even though they're being told you shouldn't go out and hoard — I think there's a kind of natural reaction to be very individualistic there and say, “I see these empty cells, I'm not going to get caught in this. I'm going to go right, right out.” And that's just the reality that people are dealing with.

BK: In thinking about kind of, how do we make sure that behavior change is happening? Or that social distancing is happening? One of the things we know, is it's really problematic to kind of leave it up to individuals to make those decisions. So how do we create incentives so that people are making the right decisions? And obviously part of it is going to come from leaders, whether it's business or government leaders making decisions to cancel events or move everyone to teleworking. But also thinking about incentives, like do businesses provide paid sick leave?

SC: With people interacting with social media and watching TV, what are they supposed to be doing to weave through this information?

DH: It's kind of like a cliche these days to say that you don't trust the media and so on, but actually the information that you get about this kind of thing from the mainstream media is pretty good information. All in all, they have pretty close relationships with those public health officials. So, I think that they're actually a very good source of information. And we should kind of put aside our tendency to say "it's cool to be skeptical of the media," and and pay attention because there's a lot of good information there.

SC: Thanks so much for chatting with me!

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