There has been plenty of pushback against the pessimism suffusing the messaging around masks and distancing, but most of it has emanated from the segment of society that thinks of empathy as a four letter word. (It has seven letters.) Now–Feb 14 2021– thankfully, NPR has found and given a platform to a commenter–Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist and associate professor at the UNC School of Information and Library Science– who brings nuance and complexity and a contrasting voice of optimism to the discussion about to what extent we will need to forever drastically curtail all normal human behaviors in the effort to defeat the Covid 19 virus.
In an interview with NPR announcer Lulu Garcia-Navarro, Tufekci was quoted as having tweeted: “ The dominance of the don’t take your masks off now, and vaccines won’t change what you can do and we don’t know if they can prevent transmissions articles and viral tweets is a crime against public health in the first month of the rollout when those points should be footnotes.”
Tufekci’s elaborated her message in response to a question about the vaccines—” Well, the problem was we were underselling them. We were not kind of explaining how good they are at preventing the things we really care about, like severe illness and death and hospitalization. We also had people, like, getting into the weeds of the variants and efficacy and this and that when, in fact, the trials were showing, still, even with the variants, amazing results for getting rid of the things we care about.”
Tufekci went on to discuss the damage that the pessimism can do, explaining that she kept hearing from people that, “…younger people who were already in eligible groups, like people working in hospital settings – some of them were not getting the vaccine. And sometimes this was related to their feeling – well, I’m not sure this was tested enough was one concern. And nothing’s going to change for me, so I’m just going to wait and see was another concern. And as the vaccination groups get bigger, which is going to happen very soon, we’re really going to want everybody to get these amazing vaccines. And if you start the messaging on the wrong foot, it’s very hard to recover afterwards.
Tufekci brings a welcome message. A drumbeat of pessimism and negative scolding can create feedback loops that can stymie our ability to fight the virus. And notice how authoritarian corrupt regimes around the world have often embraced the negative memes that can be embedded in the public health message if it is not policed. Egregious examples are the Government of Malta using Covid as an excuse to let refugees drown by the score in the Mediterranean, or the Prime Minister of India ordering everyone inside on pain of arrest when for many in India, there was no food inside. And of course not to be outdone, Donald Trump refused to even take the names of asylum-seekers to the US in the name of fighting Covid.
We need to defeat Covid but we need to remember science cuts both ways. When it became clear that people weren’t likely to get Covid outside, why didn’t that message come through enough to register? Why has our national goal shifted from reducing death and hospitalizations from Covid to obtaining “herd immunity?” Do we know—does Anthony Fauci even know—anywhere near enough about the virus to be able to say if the goal of herd immunity is even attainable. And why should we even care about herd immunity if we can reduce mortality and hospitalizations to zero or near-zero?
The reasons I have always worn a mask have never really included the fear of getting the virus. (I believe but can of course not prove that I had the virus, plus now I’ve been vaccinated). It’s always been about not wanting to be part of a transmission chain that will cause a first-responder, essential worker, member of a minority community, elderly person or anyone else to suffer. As soon as those people are largely vaccinated, I would like to go out in public and take off the mask and eventually even resume my failed 20 year career of trying to learn how to dance Zydeco.
(My own fixation hasn’t really been on Covid this past year. In October we lost a close dear friend to Breast Cancer. Another very close best friend is in his seventh year fighting the Lou Gehrig fight. And we lost one other friend this year, not really a close friend, but dear, to suicide that seemed to have been triggered by the shutdown. Covid has wreaked great tragedy and incredible suffering–the worst part may be the brutal loneliness of a covid death–but covid even in these times does not have a monopoly on tragedy.)
And Tufekci is encouraging on that score. While she agreed with Lulu Garcia Navarro on the need for messaging about how important masks have been, she pointed out that, “it’s not– hasn’t been– balanced by a messaging environment that really celebrates how good they (the vaccines) are. And the other thing, of course, everybody cares about – it’s the No. 1 thing cited by people for wanting to get vaccinated – is to protect their family, to protect their community. And what we haven’t, I think, communicated properly is that (the vaccinations) will reduce transmission. When we just say we don’t know if they reduce transmission, that gets misheard. What we mean to say is that we’re still studying it. That’s a different message, right? Then you get into, OK, you know, you live your life with a tiny amount of risk all the time. So once it’s tiny, we’re going to change it. But we should tell people they’re coming. It’s going to change. It’s going to be very different, first for vaccinated people and, as we get the numbers up, for all of us.”
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