Read: The real reason Americans aren’t quarantining
When a public-health approach isn’t producing the desired outcome, it’s time to try something different. Instead of yelling even louder about Christmas than about Thanksgiving, government officials, health professionals, and ordinary Americans alike might try this: Stop all the chastising. Remember that the public is fraying. And consider the possibility that when huge numbers of people indicate through their actions that seeing loved ones in person is nonnegotiable, they need practical ways to reduce risk that go beyond “Just say no.”
Anger at people who are flouting public-health guidelines is understandable, not least for exhausted health-care workers and those who are especially vulnerable to infection. But many long months into this pandemic, people are at their wits’ end: economically depleted, socially isolated, and disgruntled about—and in some cases genuinely baffled by—the arbitrariness of some of the restrictions on their daily lives. And if the HIV epidemic has revealed anything, it’s that shaming does little to deter risky behavior. Instead, it perpetuates stigma, which drives behavior underground and hinders prevention efforts. Americans have been told during this pandemic that taking any risks, no matter how carefully calculated, is a sign of bad character—so it’s no surprise when people are reluctant to notify others whom they may have exposed or engage with contact tracers.
As the country enters the most devastating months of the pandemic and hospitals become overwhelmed, officials are erring on the side of abstinence-only recommendations regarding social contact. Like the unfounded concerns about harm reduction for HIV and substance use, the worry is that risk-mitigation tools, such as testing, will give people a false sense of security and promote bad behavior. This misguided notion has been used as an excuse not to offer testing, including on some college campuses. But people who are willing to wait for hours to get tested are not acting irresponsibly—they’re trying, albeit with a far-from-perfect strategy, to reduce the risk of inadvertently transmitting the virus to others. Yes, it would be safer for them to stay home, and the limitations of testing need to be clearly communicated. But if people are going to travel or gather anyway, testing is better than nothing.
As cases surged in the fall, elected officials blamed the trend on misbehavior at private social gatherings. Restaurants, stores, and other workplaces aren’t the problem, the talking point goes; people just need to behave better everywhere else—in parks, playgrounds, and their own homes. But the resulting message to the public has been nonsensical. Through their policies, states are telling Americans that dining indoors is safe in revenue-generating situations, such as at a restaurant or formally catered event, while private holiday dinners are roundly condemned. Some communities have gone as far as banning all social interactions between people from more than one household, including outdoors. In truth, states probably can’t afford to pay businesses to stay closed, yet governors are under tremendous pressure to act. The result is a web of illogical rules that transfer the responsibility for containing the pandemic—and the blame for failing to do so—from public authorities to the individual.