By Jonathan Imbody
“If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky pronounced during a recent White House COVID-19 briefing.
Like many out-of-touch elites in the Biden administration, Walensky might find it startling and instructive to realize that many Americans respond to such “Mother, may I?” pronouncements by retorting, “I didn’t vote for you, I don’t know who you are, and I’m not going to have some government bureaucrat tell me what I can and cannot do.”
With Republicans, minorities and men leading the way in resisting COVID-19 vaccination, some politicians and public health officials are left wondering, “Why are so many Americans rejecting our vaccination messages, resisting our mask mandates and opposing our lockdown strategies?”
The top-down, “we know best” approach and authoritarian-sounding messages of some politicians and public health officials have undermined their desire to increase observance of precautionary measures and acceptance of vaccination. Absent humility, knowledge can lead to a kind of gnostic arrogance, which creates a chasm in communicating with the “non-enlightened” public.
Officials tempted to adopt such a perspective instead should consider listening more and seeking to understand better how many average Americans think. Some communication and policy principles to consider:
1. An effective public health policy and message in a democratic country must reflect a democratic tone rather than an autocratic tone. CDC, NIH and other health agency officials have issued many directives decreeing what people may do, must do, cannot do. Health officials must understand and respectfully address individuals’ concerns while appealing to natural self-interest, highlighting the benefits and harms of certain courses of action.
2. An effective public health policy and message must weigh non-health harms. We are learning to our chagrin that shutting down everything based on a myopic focus on infection avoidance can open the door to myriad other maladies: unemployment; loss of children’s education, school meals and reporting of abuse; mental health crises; substance abuse; suicides; divorce; and national economic vulnerability.
Weighing these catastrophic effects may lead some policy makers to conclude that these combined indirect dangers outweigh the direct danger of disease. A targeted approach may prevent more harm than a blunt shutdown.
3. An effective public health policy and message must be clear and consistent.
In March 2020, infectious diseases expert Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health proclaimed on national television, “Right now, in the United States, people should not be walking around with masks.” That message was clear, but it proved inconsistent. When the mask message flipped overnight from “leave your mask at home” to “don’t leave home without it,” the message and messenger lost credibility.
4. An effective public health policy and message must be calm and measured.
During a White House briefing, Walensky suddenly burst out with, “I’m going to lose the script and I’m going to reflect on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom.” A news report observed that Walensky “appeared to grow emotional” during the public venting of her fear, as she continued, “But right now I’m scared.”
Hardly a Churchillian moment. Half the country probably hid in their basements wearing triple masks, while the other half laughed out loud on their way to the bar.
Instead of alarmist reactions, we need steady, confidence-building messages that tamp down fear, instill courage and equip the public for action. In a public health crisis, effective communication can save lives, and ineffective communication can cost lives.
We appreciate the public health officials and politicians who have listened to the concerns of everyday Americans and have communicated honestly, respectfully and effectively. But when politicians and public health officials prove tone deaf and take an arrogant, autocratic approach that alienates half the country, the task of communicating lifesaving messages falls to local community health professionals and faith leaders.
These front-line servant-leaders have real relationships with and the trust of their patients and congregants. Their honest and respectful communications and focus on empowering others can help win the pandemic battle.
Jonathan Imbody directs Freedom2Care, which focuses on freedom of faith, conscience and speech from a health care perspective. He also is author of “Faith Steps,” which outlines how people of faith can engage in public policy. A sampling of his other published commentaries can be found at https://www.freedom2care.org/commentaries.
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This article was originally published by the WND News Center.