With Coronavirus, Careless Talk Costs Lives

Authorities are mistaken if they think that people will wait for clear guidance before acting.

During WWII, the British government launched a national propaganda campaign called “Careless Talk Costs Lives.” Its goal was to discourage ordinary people from gossiping about sensitive information that could be overheard by a spy hiding under a restaurant dining table or lurking in the luggage rack of a train.

Americans have been told by our leaders that we’re also fighting a war against a hidden enemy — COVID-19. Yet a virus is not like a human foe: it just mindlessly replicates for as long as it can find defenseless people to infect.

In this pandemic, careless talk can still cost lives — only this time it may be our own leaders who are putting us at risk.

As states begin lifting their shelter-in-place orders, Americans are getting less strict about social distancing. And this could be deadly without public health measures in place to control possible flare-ups.

No one wants to stay at home a day longer than they have to, and our federal and state leaders are rightly sensitive to the social and economic costs of maintaining strict lockdowns. But our research into the timelines of Americans’ protective actions suggests that the authorities are mistaken if they think that people will wait for clear guidance before acting.

We charted major national and state policy announcements on top of real-time data on social distancing (as tracked by cell phone data by Unacast) behavior across all 50 states. Our data shows that Americans are changing their behavior in anticipation of policy changes.

Going into the COVID-19 pandemic, this was a plus: across the country as a whole, people began social distancing at least two days before the White House declared a national emergency back on March 13, and well before social distancing guidelines were issued on March 16.

We saw similar behavior at the state level. In Florida, for example, mobility had already decreased by 50% in the two days before Governor DeSantis announced the stay-at-home policy on April 1.

Furthermore, when we looked at the relative popularity of certain search terms, we saw a surge in searches for “social distancing” from March 8 — five days before the national emergency declaration. Similarly, “How to make a coronavirus mask” was popular as a Google search term by a full 12 days before the CDC advised promoting masks.

But coming out of a lockdown, this same effect could be bad news.

In mid-April, as President Trump announced reopening guidelines prior to any state actually doing so, social distancing declined in every region of the country. This aligns with our research showing that the strongest predictors of whether people practice social distancing are their perceptions that it reduces the risk to themselves and their families, and how much they think others are doing it.

Anticipating steps to open up the economy lowers people’s perception of risk. The words used by Members of Congress and local officials, picked up from the media and reinforced by community norms, are at least as important as the policies themselves. “If everyone’s talking about opening up, it must be safe to do so,” is the underlying takeaway.

This holds important lessons for governors and Members of Congress, for media outlets with a sense of social responsibility, and for health care providers.

No American should have to make a binary choice between health or wealth. Those responsible for messaging about actions affecting public health bear a special responsibility to be aware of the very real effect of their words.

The only safe way out of lockdown is through three steps — and our federal and state leaders need to speak carefully and clearly about them:

  • First, we need testing, because we need to know who is infected.
  • We then need to track down all the people a coronavirus carrier may have infected through close contact.
  • Finally, we need to make sure that the infected person and their close contacts do not infect others, which means isolating them until their potential incubation period is over.

This strategy of testing, contact tracing, and isolation is what’s worked so well in countries like Germany, New Zealand and South Africa. Yet, in a country of more than 300 million people like the United States, we need to tackle this three-step plan with far fewer resources. This can be done by using tools like our COVID-19 Community Vulnerability Index, so we prioritize those regions today to save lives tomorrow.

We can beat this enemy and we can save lives, but only if our talk is careful — and our actions are smart.

This work was made possible by everyone at the Surgo Foundation, including but not limited to (in alphabetical order): James Baer, Vincent Huang, Hannah Kemp, and Sema Sgaier.

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