How we can get others to take COVID-19 precautions more seriously

Patients get in line based on their last name for COVID-19 testing at the stadium on Sept. 15, 2020. (Joe Ryan/The Diamondback)

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the structural problems in our culture and society that we have tried for too long to ignore. Among other things, our lack of faith in institutions and the polarization of our politics have proven to be roadblocks to any sort of competent response plan to this crisis. Even after passing 200,000 deaths due to COVID-19, we still live in a country where nearly a third of people are not very concerned about contracting this virus.

The fact that this pandemic has become part of our never-ending culture wars is both alarming and disappointing. But when compared to the political struggle over issues like climate change, it’s clear that this new debate is simply an extension of our pre-COVID cultural environment. The harsh reality we must face is that our collective health and safety has become contingent on the practices and beliefs of people who refuse to take this virus seriously. 

With this in mind, the focus should be on finding ways we can actually convince people to change their behavior without channeling the kind of animosity we are naturally inclined to feel. 

This process is rooted in what it means to argue with someone who is experiencing cognitive dissonance. Those who initially were skeptical about the severity of the virus may have begun to adopt a worldview that ignores new information and will continue to find reasons to affirm their already-entrenched viewpoint. This is just one reason why we see people deny the reported death counts due to COVID-19, argue about the ineffectiveness of masks and engage in behavior that puts themselves and others at risk. To get around this inclination, we must be not only willing to engage with others, but also willing to speak to them in a way that understands and affirms their worldview as much as possible.

What would this look like in the context of a conversation involving the pandemic? Whether it’s a family member, roommate or fellow student, you can begin by acknowledging something we all likely agree with: The pandemic has disrupted our daily lives and we would wish for things to go back to normal. In doing this, you are presenting a shared perspective that would, in theory, reduce the level of disruption that occurs when you then try to persuade someone to change their habits or beliefs. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that changing someone’s perspective will never happen in an instant — it will almost always be gradual. 

Contrast this approach with how we typically see people talk about this pandemic and its impacts. While videos of unmasked customers being thrown out of stores or aggressively worded exchanges on Twitter may be amusing to see, they rarely, if ever, result in anyone’s mind being changed. Often, these kinds of approaches result in people becoming more committed to their original position. People generally respond to empathy, and will be more open-minded if the person approaching them is open-minded to begin with.

When it comes to issues like this, there is certainly a tendency for people, myself included, to look at those who haven’t taken this pandemic seriously and begin to label them. There is often a temptation to simply call them ignorant, cruel or selfish — something that may be true at an individual level. But this doesn’t actually accomplish the goal of convincing someone to take this pandemic seriously and act accordingly. The country’s polarization during this pandemic will not improve unless we’re willing to engage with each other in good faith and strive to find common ground.

Evan Crum is a junior government and politics and psychology major. He can be reached at ecrum42@umd.edu.

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