During an interview for a local paper about COVID-19 (Coronavirus), my mayor said: “Yes, people have died, mostly people who were in fragile condition.”
His statement was not unusual; it is messaging commonly used by public health officials, elected representatives, and media outlets when discussing public health threats; whether that threat is influenza, H1N1, COVID-19 or another infectious or viral disease.
While the purpose of public service announcements is to quell fear, the underlying message from statements like the mayor’s is this: healthy people are considered, the threat is downplayed, and high-risk populations are left to fend on our own. If a public health threat is, by default, advertised as only causing “mild symptoms for most people,” then healthy people – who don’t see their own lives or health at risk – will not perceive the seriousness of preventing its spread to vulnerable groups.
If the central theme is that healthy people needn’t worry, that’s the message that will routinely be broadcast. And when public messaging from reputable sources is treated as fact, it can then be weaponized against anyone who suggests differently.
I see evidence of this most clearly within communities that are medically high-risk, where many people who have been absorbing the, “Don’t worry, only sick people will die,” messaging have internalized it; then taken it upon themselves to censor their own community. I have seen countless posts in private disease-specific Facebook groups where someone has posted about their fears about COVID-19 and others immediately respond: “You’ll be fine, just wash your hands,” “This is being blown out of proportion,” and “The flu kills more people, so stop.”
In addition to a lack of information about COVID-19 in general; this style of community-censoring, or gas-lighting, ultimately makes any available information harder to access for people who are medically at-risk, which leads to a lack of reliable support for people with legitimate health concerns because they don’t know where it’s safe to ask questions.
In short, messaging impacts the likelihood of disease spread to vulnerable groups. Transparency about high-risk populations built into all public messaging is critical to prevent the spread of new, dangerous diseases. I can’t stress how important it is to be aware of the privilege of healthy immune systems and the responsibility of those who have them to know: people with suppressed or compromised immune systems exist in large numbers and rely on healthy people to prevent the spread of viruses and other community health threats.
In a Facebook post about the aforementioned mayor’s problematic statement, I offered different language for public officials to consider using. His office adopted the language that same day in a video message about washing your hands.
Here is my suggested language:
I also wrote these two powerful pieces for CreakyJoints here:
Additional resources (will add additional links as released)
American College of Rheumatology announcement
Coronavirus and Spondyloarthritis: Your Questions, Answered – the Spondylitis Association of America
World Institute on Disability resources
Peer-reviewed research (updated daily) from JAMA
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