The Failure of Pandemic Messaging

Robert Jeffries
4 min readJul 3, 2020

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I want my old life back. I miss going to restaurants. I am frustrated that my wife cannot get a flight back home. I want to go to places I haven’t seen. I want this pandemic to be over as quickly as possible.

The public health messaging about the virus and its spread has been abysmal. On one side are the epidemiologists. They know how epidemics work in great detail. The answers are, to them, blindingly obvious. Their explanations, however, have largely gone over the heads of the citizenry.

Unless they have personally seen someone struggle to survive the infection, the average person has only a muddled conception of what we face. They naturally want to solve the problem. There is a large gap, however, between what the experts know and what the public comprehends.

The performance of government leaders worldwide has been mostly bad. This is especially true in the United States and Brazil where the top leadership has turned incompetence into an Olympic sport, with the US taking the gold and Brazil the silver.

The pandemic will end eventually. How long that will take is within our control. The experts have not given the public the building blocks of knowledge necessary to understand how we could stop the pandemic relatively quickly if we shared the same intent and pursued it relentlessly.

The fundamental fact of the pandemic is that the virus uses our bodies to reproduce. Understanding that we humans are making billions of copies of the virus every day, is essential. Once we accept that we are the ones making the virus, the answer to the problem becomes just as blindingly obvious to us as it is to the experts.

We need to stop making viruses. It really is that simple. In fact, that could be the slogan: Stop making viruses!

There are two ways to stop making viruses. The first is to not become infected. People who are not infected do not make viruses.

If that fails, the second method is not to infect anyone else. If the virus’s victim does not pass it on to anyone else, all the viruses that victim makes will eventually break down into their constituent chemicals and be incapable of ever infecting anyone.

So the simple injunctions are:

Don’t be a virus factory and
Don’t be a virus-spreader.

These are extremely simple ideas that everyone can easily understand. Any suggested behavioral change has to be connected to one or the other. Don’t make or spread viruses. That is a very easy rule to internalize.

Even at that, it needs to be repeated endlessly like “loose lips, sink ships” and other wartime slogans until it is deeply embedded in people’s understanding of how the world works.

Perhaps the biggest error in messaging has been making men feel they are sissies if they try not to become a virus factory. The tough guy mode of masculinity requires that males show their virility by flaunting risky behaviors. The refusal to wear facemasks is an example of this.

There is an alternative mode of masculinity that can help rather than aggravate the problem. The better message would assume toughness and suggest that Mr. Virility could be so tough, he might be a virus factory and not even know it. He should, therefore, always act as if he were a virus factory and a potential virus spreader to protect others from his super virile self.

Another failure in messaging concerns exponentiality. It has been explained some but hasn’t been adequately emphasized on the growth side. These things have to be repeated hundreds and thousands of times to get through to enough people to have any effect.

What hasn’t been explained at all is that the same thing can happen on the way down. On the way up if every person infects two other people, the number of cases keeps doubling and gets to very big numbers very quickly. The same thing can happen, however, on the way down. If only half of infected people infect someone else, the number of cases will keep getting cut in half so that 16 infections fall to 8 which then fall to 4 and then to 2 and the chain transmission stops if that last individual can avoid infecting anyone else.

Only with intense repetition and lots of ways of saying the same thing can this get through to people. But that kind of organized effort is certainly possible.

The last error in messaging is not showing a light at the end of the tunnel. The way this is being presented now is not as a fight we can win by breaking the chain of infection and stamping out the last embers. People are left with the idea that the only solution is a vaccine that could be years away.

That is false. If people can be sufficiently motivated to try hard not to become infected or to spread the infection to someone else, this nightmare could end very quickly. If only one person in four infected someone else, we could get down to about 2,000 cases per three-week cycle by the end of the year.

The failure is one of imagination and determination. The intent has to be to win by refusing to be slaves to this bit of chemistry we cannot even see. People will get behind that idea if a highly focused effort is made to help them understand it.

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