As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, associate professor Holley Wilkin discusses the importance of effective public health messaging and why it’s been largely ineffective at flattening the curve.

Slowing the spread of COVID-19, a disease that has so far killed more than 250,000 Americans, requires mass-scale shifts in behavior.

Persuading the public to stay home, practice social distancing, wear a mask, or eventually get a vaccine is largely reliant on effective communications, says Wilkin, associate professor of communication at Georgia State.

“First, you have to convince people that the virus is a threat that needs to be taken seriously,” says Wilkin. “Then you have to convince them that these changes will work to protect themselves and other people in their family or community.”

That has proven difficult, at least in America, where conspiracy theories about COVID-19 abound and public response to the pandemic has become deeply polarized among partisan lines.

Here, Wilkin explains what the events of 2020 have revealed about the importance of health education and communication:

According to some critics, public health messaging has failed during the pandemic. Why is it so difficult to communicate effectively during a health crisis?

One of the most difficult things is raise the right amount of fear in people. You want them to take the pandemic seriously, but you don’t want to go overboard so they think “please, that will never happen.” Then there’s the fact that if crisis-related communication is done properly, bad stuff doesn’t happen. That makes it easy to lose people’s confidence. People think you raised this big alarm for no reason.

Surveys show that large numbers of Americans today distrust the media and some politicians have pushed to discredit media outlets. How does that affect health communications efforts?

It certainly makes things more challenging as we’re looking around for trusted sources of information. We need to use multiple sources through multiple channels because a segment of people may not trust this person, but they might trust that person. It might be that people trust the members of an online group more than they trust their doctors.

Read the full article about taking COVID seriously by Jennifer French Giarratan at Futurity.