Story at a glance

  • Weeks after statewide stay-at-home orders were issued, some people are still reluctant to follow social distancing guidelines.
  • Margaret Seide, a doctor, says denial is one of the key reasons people are struggling to adapt to this new reality.
  • Misinformation and mixed messages from official sources and media outlets can also be confusing to many.

Four months after the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the United States, there have been nearly 990,000 confirmed cases. But while nearly every American’s life has changed due to the coronavirus pandemic, not everyone is ready to accept it. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic is really shocking for a lot of people and really surreal. It landed on us and changed life as we know it,” said Margaret Seide, a psychiatrist in New York. “I don’t know that it is real on an individual level until it’s happening to you or someone you know.”


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In comparison to other parts of the world, many Americans live a comfortable life, she said, where they don’t regularly confront their own mortality. And while those on the front lines are forced to confront reality, others remain in denial over the severity of the pandemic. 

“There’s this suspension of reality, because you think, ‘All I have to do is serve this sentence, get to this date circled on the calendar, and then I can go back to living my life again,’” said Seide. 

But that goal post keeps moving, as some state leaders announce reopening dates while others push them back. 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. 


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“For people who consume only particular strains of news in only clickbait or soundbites, it’s really easy to get the wrong message,” said Seide. “I also think the divisiveness of our time and our particular political climate is also contributing to the idea that there is a them and not me. There’s this factor of the other that I think plays into how you’re going to regard COVID-19.”

For others, it could also be pride that is holding them back from accepting their limitations in the face of a potentially fatal disease. Americans first watched from afar as the coronavirus outbreak spread through China, but many did not take it seriously, and Seide suggested they could be struggling to accept that they were wrong.

“We’re used to succeeding or overcoming, whether it’s an infection or a surgery, we’ve been doing really really well [as a society],” said Seide. “We’re not used to failing.”

So how do you get those in denial to accept the necessity of social distancing and other vital restrictions? Time will play a big role, Seide said, but so can social media. As those who are affected by COVID-19 share their stories online, more Americans will be exposed to a disease they may otherwise be sheltered from.  

“Nurses, doctors, people who work in the hospitals, now with social media anybody with a phone can reach you and tell you this is what my day was like today,” she said. “The more people see that and it really hits home and it’s more emotional, rather than just numbers or talking heads, I think that’s going to be the best conduit for bringing it home.” 


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Published on Apr 27, 2020