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Political division is dangerously defining our COVID-19 conversation

Political division is dangerously defining our COVID-19 conversation
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With more than 30 years as a pollster, and with two decades of work in public health, the two of us never have been more afraid.

Ten months into the COVID-19 pandemic, we have a partisan political chasm when it comes to how Americans perceive and act toward the pandemic. More than 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” After 300,000 deaths and counting, we are learning the hard way that a country divided cannot effectively manage a pandemic, either. 

But a new poll we conducted recently shows that changing the way we talk about the pandemic can profoundly impact the behavior changes needed to help eliminate COVID-19, restore public trust, improve compliance with public health safety protocols (yes, call them “protocols”), and ultimately save lives and get our lives and our economy — in that order — back to normal. 

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Polarizing, combative rhetoric has brought our nation to where we are today. Until we have the right messaging, we simply will not close the divides that have erupted across every possible demographic and attitudinal fault line. But as language has driven much of our divide, a better lexicon may be our most valuable tool. Our research offers four insights about how our leaders can improve the way we talk about the pandemic and how, in turn, we can get everyone to take the steps required to eliminate COVID-19 in the United States.

First, we need to balance our language between health and the economy. To no one’s surprise, Republican voters are much more skeptical of the virus and its impact than Democratic voters or the broader public. Republicans also are much more hostile about the need for additional “lockdowns” (please, call it “stay-at-home protocols”) and their significant impact on the economy. Only 12 percent of Democratic voters prioritize the national economy over the health and safety of the nation, compared to 51 percent of Republican voters. 

Since the pandemic began, we have been arguing over a false dichotomy between fighting the virus or supporting the economy. It is a false and misleading choice that has failed to serve the interests of either side. We must protect not only our physical but our economic well-being. We need to continually balance our language between the economy and health. While health is more persuasive, ignoring economic anxiety ignores the voices of roughly 40 percent of Americans for whom this is their primary concern — in some cases, a crippling one. Our leaders should emphasize that following public health protocols will help to avoid severe limits and restrictions, and that will speed up the return to a healthy, inclusive economy.  

Second, it’s time for politicians — and politics — to step aside. Political leaders have been dominating the airwaves and the briefing rooms. Yet, despite their best efforts, the words and phrases they’ve embraced are missing the mark, failing to motivate millions of Americans who still do not realize their lives and the lives of their families are in jeopardy.

The problem is not just what they say but who they are. If you’re an elected official, you are immediately tainted. Everyone is watching and listening for some partisan bias. Please don’t taint the research and science by sharing it through a partisan lens.

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Americans trust recommendations from medical and public health officials above everyone else specifically because their opinions are shaped by science, not politics. Thirty-five percent of respondents believe COVID-19 decisions should come from the nation’s highest-ranking medical and public health officials, followed by 28 percent who want their state officials to make those decisions. Whenever we can inject local control into the conversation — and mean it — it will bolster our efforts. People simply have more faith in public health experts delivering localized solutions.  

Conversely, only 20 percent said they trust elected officials. It would be far better for all of us if they stood in the background and let the experts do their jobs, publicly and privately. And if they must speak, everything they say should be fact-based and decidedly neutral, with absolutely no hint of politics.

As for health care CEOs, they’ve made the media rounds championing their corporate successes. It would be far better for them, their shareholders, and for all of us if they took a backseat and let their chief scientists and researchers speak for them. The CEOs are seen as being about profit. The scientists and researchers they employ are about us.   

Third, voters are interested in supporting leaders for acting on COVID-19. Only 7 percent of swing voters and 11 percent of Republican voters say they would be less likely to vote for a member of Congress who encouraged people to take tangible steps (which may include personal sacrifice) to stop the spread of COVID-19. The U.S. confirmed more than 200,000 new COVID-19 cases for the first time on Nov. 27. Elected leaders must come together to pass the legislation and make the funding available to support our nation’s efforts to eradicate COVID-19, realizing that it will be an electoral boon, not a bust, across the political spectrum. 

Fourth, we need to give people a reason to comply with public health protocols beyond the fact that it’s good for them. We need to make COVID-19 tangible by individualizing, personalizing and humanizing the “pandemic” (“coronavirus” does exactly the opposite). Before talking about reopening the economy and schools, start by emphasizing the shared goal of “returning to normal.” That’s what Americans really want. The economy is about others; returning to normal is about us.  

We also need to speak to the consequences of failure. For example, Democrats (40 percent) and Republicans (35 percent) agree that COVID-19 is highly infectious, and both are compelled by the statement that one infection can quickly grow into an outbreak that could shutter a neighborhood, community or entire city. Everyone wants “a safe and sensible path forward.” And while not everyone agrees that proper behavior is a “national duty,” the red and blue states share a belief and a commitment to “personal responsibility.”

Elected leaders also must follow the guidance that they promote or risk undermining those efforts. Governors, mayors and other elected officials were not following their own advice by choosing to dine indoors or travel during Thanksgiving. This hypocrisy is fodder for pandemic skeptics. Eliminating COVID-19 will take sacrifices — remaining distant from family, avoiding activities that we enjoy and that are central to our lives — from all of us. To ask this of the American public means that everyone must take personal responsibility. “Do as I say but not as I do” will perpetuate the pandemic and cost lives.   

We all have a part to play in eliminating COVID-19, but we will not truly work together until we have language that brings us together. Whether we are talking on the nightly news, posting on social media, or simply meeting a friend for a socially distanced coffee, we each will be doing our part to eliminate COVID-19 and return to normal.

Frank I. Luntz, PhD, is a national pollster and communication advisor. Brian C. Castrucci, DrPH, is president and CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, a public health philanthropy.