The missing link of Biden’s COVID strategy: social scientists

This week, the U.S. has received both encouraging and sobering news about the future of the COVID-19 pandemic. On the one hand, Moderna and Pfizer announced COVID-19 vaccines that are more effective than many had dared to hope. At the same time, cases of coronavirus are dramatically increasing across the country, threatening the “dark winter” that many have predicted. Amidst these challenges, Joe Biden has assembled a team of 13 highly qualified advisors from the fields of medicine, epidemiology, public health, and global health. While scientific leadership in national pandemic response is critically needed, an important element is missing on the task force: an expert on the social and cultural dimensions of this public health emergency. We need the public to take preventative measures seriously before the rollout of a vaccine — and then to trust the vaccine enough to accept it. That’s why when Biden assumes office in January, he should appoint a social scientist to help coordinate his COVID-19 response.

The social dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic are particularly important to consider in the United States, where the pandemic’s trajectory has been accelerated by the rise of conspiracy theories. Abetted by social media, misinformation about the pandemic has compromised public willingness to wear face masks and respect stay-at-home orders. Pandemic denialism has become so entrenched that, as one South Dakota nurse recently reported, some COVID-19 patients refuse to accept their own diagnosis even as they lay dying in hospital beds, believing SARS-CoV-2 to be a hoax. In some social networks, this has manifested in seemingly bizarre claims — that 5G networks transmit the virus, or that COVID-19 vaccines will contain a microchip. Opinion surveys have found that as many as a quarter of all Americans believe that the COVID-19 pandemic was planned.

These beliefs undermine trust in public health, medical science, and scientific institutions, and their prevalence is bad news for the incoming administration. Biden’s advisory team will contend not only with record rates of disease transmission, but with the reality that many Americans will, for ideological reasons, refuse to comply with mask mandates and comply with social distancing policies.

A new study has found that only 58 percent of Americans will be comfortable accepting a coronavirus vaccine. The Biden-Harris plan gestures to the importance of reaching an accord about the pandemic, asking the public to “stop the political theater and willful misinformation” regarding COVID-19. But this only scratches the surface of what the administration must do in order to reach Americans who do not share in the scientific consensus about the pandemic. The Biden team will face complex, rapidly evolving dynamics of disinformation, conspiracy theories, paranoia, and mistrust — issues which cannot be combatted with science alone.

To control the pandemic in the coming year, the Biden administration will need to connect the dots, making sure that excellent health policy results in excellent public health. This will depend on reaching communities with culturally competent messaging about COVID-19 prevention and vaccine safety. Social scientists can bring actionable intelligence to these efforts.

In Britain, medical anthropologist Heidi Larson directs the interdisciplinary Vaccine Confidence Project and focuses her research on the management of rumors surrounding vaccines. On the West coast, medical anthropologist E.J. Sobo has studied how childhood immunization delay and refusal is cultivated in networks of parents. Philosopher of medicine Maya Goldenberg studies vaccine hesitancy as an outcome of failed public trust. And leading a national working group of public health experts, medical anthropologist Emily Brunson has recently developed recommendations to increase the public’s willingness to accept COVID-19 vaccination.

A truly effective, truly “all-of-society” pandemic response by the incoming administration will require strategies informed by social science. The president-elect has promised that his administration’s pandemic response will be built “on a bedrock of science.” In order for that to pay off, the administration should dedicate new funding to investigating the spread of conspiracy theories about the coronavirus. These will, if allowed to proliferate, undermine the efficacy of even the most promising evidence-based measures in disease control.

Biden’s team should also recruit social scientists to apply their significant knowledge base to the development of a pandemic communication strategy, meeting skeptical Americans where they are and motivating them to get on board with efforts in public health. A culturally competent pandemic response could mean the difference between a real recovery from the pandemic’s most catastrophic effects — and a “dark winter” lasting for years to come.

Martha Lincoln is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at San Francisco State University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Joe Biden public trust deficit vaccine skeptics

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