Like the flu? Trump’s coronavirus messaging confuses public, pandemic researchers say

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U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about the U.S response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic during an address to the nation from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., March 11, 2020. (Doug Mills/Pool via REUTERS)


The coronavirus is not as bad as the seasonal flu. President Donald Trump is not worried about having had a direct exposure to the virus. The United States is in far better shape than other countries.

Those are some of the messages from Trump to the American public in recent days.

They are textbook examples of disastrous communication during disease outbreaks, according to some researchers into the psychology of pandemics and how leaders can most effectively communicate to keep the public safe during them.

Asked about Trump’s messaging around the illness, including his public comments, a White House spokesman said:

“While the media wants to spin up fear, this White House is working around the clock to protect all Americans from the coronavirus. As President Trump said this week, we are using the full power of the federal government and the private sector.”

Trump is known for his informal style in attempts to, for instance, calm markets amid trade wars. In the past few days, decision-makers in the United States including the president have taken a flurry of steps to try to curb the spread.

Among them – Trump restricted travel to the United States from Europe; the National Hockey League suspended its season and the men’s college basketball tournament was canceled; Disney theme parks and Broadway theaters closed. Trump, who has been criticized over the pace of testing for the virus, on Friday promised “large scale” testing.

Yet across social media and in private conversations, many Americans still doubt the pandemic is that bad. Many link their suspicions that the danger is exaggerated directly to Trump’s early downplaying of the illness.

“This is insanity, I think this coronavirus hype is bull,” said Rene Rodriguez, doing some late-night grocery shopping in Austin with his wife and infant child.

“The media is hyping this to get at Trump. Nobody can explain why this is more dangerous than the flu. Everybody I work with thinks this is a joke.”

Managing a pandemic is one of the toughest tasks for a leader, some experts say, as there is a fine balance between not stoking panic while also speaking truthfully of the dangers.

They say there are clear best practices.

“It’s essential in managing pandemics that leaders are seen as credible and trustworthy,” said Steven Taylor, a psychiatry professor at the University of British Columbia and author of the 2019 book “The Psychology of Pandemics.”

“If the public loses the trust of its leaders, people will not listen to them when they offer good advice.”

History has shown that leaders trying to manage pandemics without full transparency hamper citizens from acting to help, Taylor said.

“On the one hand it creates increased anxiety among those who doubt the truth is being told,” he said. “And on the other it increases the number of people who think the whole thing is overblown.”


Trump’s address to the nation on Wednesday evening was his most somber public appearance to discuss the pandemic. He imposed the Europe travel curbs, called for unity and asked people to set aside partisan differences.

But for experts in effective messaging during pandemics, he did not go far enough to plainly lay out to Americans the sacrifices they need to make.

Just hours later, Trump again seemed to be relaxed about the risks.

He got word that he had been in direct contact earlier this week with someone who later tested positive for coronavirus – the communications director for Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

Asked if he was worried, Trump told reporters on Thursday: “Let’s put it this way – I’m not concerned.” A White House spokeswoman said later the president would not undergo a test for the virus.

On Monday, Trump had tweeted: “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”

Anthony Fauci, head of infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health and a member of Trump’s coronavirus task force, was asked by a House of Representatives committee on Wednesday for a fact that would help Americans gauge the danger.

“This is 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu,” Fauci said. “I think that’s something that people can get their arms around and understand.”

Taylor said past pandemics have shown how playing down dangers only helps the virus spread, as people are less vigilant about hygiene, avoiding crowds and getting tested.


M.J. Crockett, a neuroscientist and director of the Crockett Lab at Yale University whose work centers on investigating altruism, morality and economic decision-making, has researched behavior in pandemics and the type of messaging that spurs people to make sacrifices for the common good.

Such messaging was not coming from Trump and his Cabinet, she said.

“The response of the American government has been shameful,” Crockett said. “There are a lot of mixed messages.”

Political divisions in the United States, intensified ahead of the November presidential election, make it likely that Trump will balk at highlighting the dangers and the need for Americans to make deep sacrifices, Crockett said.

“The absolute wrong messaging includes comparing the coronavirus to the ordinary flu, by insisting that the number of cases is low and saying that it’s been contained,” she said.


Leaders in countries harder hit by the coronavirus are far out front in how they are motivating people, both Crockett and Taylor said.

Chancellor Angela Merkel told Germans on Wednesday that up to two-thirds of the country’s citizens could become infected.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, while his government has been strongly criticized for bungling the response, has stepped up effective communications.

“We realize that these measures will create discomfort, sometimes small, sometimes very large. But this is the moment of self-responsibility,” Conte said this week.

In Austin, postal carrier A.J. Graham was stuffing mail into dozens of mailboxes.

“I’m definitely not hearing messages that I need to make sacrifices for the common good,” she said. “We’ve overcome our differences and come together before – just look at America after 9/11,” she said, referring to the Sept. 11, 2001 hijacked plane attacks.

“But we need leaders who know how to ask for it.”

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