Scaring people into taking COVID seriously? Most Americans understand just how insidious this disease is

Elisabeth Rosenthal, a contributor to the New York Times opinion page, argues that “It’s Time to Scare People About Covid.” Essentially, she advocates the saturation of the airwaves with the coronavirus equivalent of the horrifying anti-smoking ads featuring lung cancer survivors.

I’m not so sure that such a strategy would be prudent.

Having had their lives turned upside-down by the virus and watched nearly 300,000 of their countrymen die, I think that most understand just how insidious this disease is. It cannot be compared to a bad flu season. It’s a deadly pandemic that, left unchecked, would kill millions of Americans. Sure, there exists a segment of society that believes the coronavirus to be way overblown or even a hoax. But those people are far outnumbered by a cohort that recognizes the severity of the disease, and still supports a loosening of restrictions — and not because they’re stupid or evil.

Rather, they look around at the slew of arbitrary restrictions enacted since the onset of the pandemic — not being able to move between your own properties in Michigan, outdoor dining being banned in Los Angeles, the targeting of houses of worship in New York — and reasonably conclude that such measures are not only nearly useless in curbing the spread of COVID-19, but damaging to the emotional well-being and economic interests of their communities.

That these restrictions, and a teachers’ union-led effort to keep children out of school this fall, were decidedly unscientific didn’t matter, though. No matter how outrageous the rule, to comply was to be patriotic; to protest was to be selfish, according to most of the media as well as high-profile public officials.

The infuriating effect of many of these restrictions has only been compounded by the hypocrisy of many of the self-styled heroes of the pandemic. Some, like Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer and California’s Gavin Newsom, have personally flouted rules or best practices that they’ve touted. Others encouraged and tolerated massive crowds gathering in the streets to protest the death of George Floyd and celebrate Joe Biden’s election victory. Some are guilty on both counts. So, while I don’t find Rosenthal’s argument — that graphically describing the effects of COVID-19 to the populace will engender greater fidelity to pandemic-related public health measures — facially ridiculous, I do think it’s based on a false premise.

The attitudes of those Americans Rosenthal believes to be too cavalier about the virus have been shaped not by what she describes as “cute, warm and dull” messaging. They’ve developed as a result not only of the president’s irresponsible downplaying of the crisis, but also the blatant partisanship, hypocrisy, and incompetence on display from the likes of state and local officials such as Andrew Cuomo, Whitmer, and Newsom. It’s unlikely that these hardened attitudes will be disturbed by any scare-tactic-laden public relations campaign. In fact, such a campaign could just as likely be interpreted as yet another sign of contempt and have the exact opposite effect of what Rosenthal intends.

The objective of our leadership class during the pandemic should not be to scare Americans into complying with ill-considered regulations, but to devise ones that they will be willing, and even eager, to follow. To favor the former strategy over the latter is to betray a lack of faith in the American people that not only is odious, but has real-world consequences.

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