Although there have been more than one million confirmed cases, and nearly everyone’s life has changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, not everyone is ready to accept the new reality.
Mixed messages from government and public health officials are contributing to public confusion, which is worsened by the divide in how and where Americans get their news and information.
America is struggling to adjust to life during the pandemic. Across the country, social distancing is being inconsistently implemented and many are growing restless, wondering whether we’re over-reacting and when we should “open up” the country again for business as usual.
In comparison to other parts of the world, many Americans live a comfortable life—one in which they don’t regularly confront their own mortality. While those on the front lines are forced to deal with reality every day, others remain in denial over the severity of the pandemic.
Why do some think it’s all a hoax?
We’re used to succeeding as a society, and we’ve been doing really well. We’re not used to failing.
We have become a nation filled with conspiracy-theory believers who deny science. It’s normal for people to believe in conspiracy theories—about 50% of the US population believes in at least one. Conspiracy theories are rooted in mistrust: when people don’t trust authoritative sources of information—based on personal experience, political affiliation, or simple gullibility—they are then vulnerable to misinformation.
The idea that there’s some hidden truth behind world events always seems to have a certain appeal. The belief that one is privy to that hidden truth, unlike the rest of us “sheep,” appeals to what psychologists call a “need for uniqueness.” It makes you feel special, an insider, smarter than others. And fictional narratives are often more tantalizing than the mundane truth or the reality that things, and especially terrible things, often happen for no apparent reason.
There is also a sense that it won’t happen to them, particularly if they do not know anyone who has had the illness. Between limited personal experience and broader empirical reality, the personal often wins.
Americans also have a problem with authority. Many are willing to defy orders to stay home, simply because they don’t like being told what to do.
Why should we shut down our thriving society?
The goal of the stay-at-home orders is to prevent deaths, not cause them. The order is not a vehicle of oppression, because the intentions are for the good of society as a whole. While your individual freedom to go where you want when you please may be limited, the benefit for the collective outweighs your individual, temporary suffering. Think of Jaws: when there’s a shark in the water, and everyone’s ordered out onto the beach, some complain they’ve lost their freedom to swim and go back in at the cost of their lives. COVID-19 is the great white shark, but it won’t be blown up or killed by a speargun.
Any way you look at it, the upside is greater than the downside. In the worst case scenario, people get bored, the economy might crash to a degree more than it would otherwise. But people do not die of boredom, and the economy will recover. People who succumb to the virus, unfortunately, will not.
Stay-at-home orders work. They are not dictatorial, nor are they a slippery slope to totalitarian dystopia. Such orders are simply required if we want to move past this difficult phase of human history quickly, and with fewer casualties.
The outcome will be worthwhile, even if we may temporarily be put in an uncomfortable position. It should not cost us the deaths of our loved ones or those of the people around us to realize that society is a collaborative effort. If we start now, and accept some small discomfort, our lives will get back to normal soon, with less tragedy.
How can we convince people to take COVID-19 seriously?
As those who are affected by COVID-19 share their stories, more Americans will be exposed to a disease they may otherwise be sheltered from.
The prevailing consensus from public health scientists, epidemiologists, and infectious disease specialists is that drastic measures are warranted in order to “flatten the curve” and minimize the impact—especially the number of deaths—related to COVID-19. From that perspective, given the potential for as many lives to be lost as in 1918, erring on the side of overreaction makes complete sense.
But the reality is that such unprecedented social distancing will indeed have potentially catastrophic effects on the economy the longer it continues. How we weigh the risk of mass casualties against the risk of economic disaster is something that we’ll likely hear opinions and debates about for the foreseeable future.