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Researcher Studies How Messaging On COVID-19 Disparities Affects Policy Preferences

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As the coronavirus started creeping and then raging across the country, it didn't take long to notice a change - among some people, at least - from we're all in this together to I'm not wearing a mask, and why aren't you opening my hair salon and my gym? Still, others, perhaps initially indifferent, started taking protective measures more seriously and showed support for public officials who did the same.

Back in May, Evan Lieberman couldn't help but wonder what role, if any, race played in all this, especially the increasing emphasis on how COVID-19 was disproportionately affecting certain groups. Lieberman is a professor of political science and contemporary Africa at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and along with researcher Alison Harrell co-authored a new study in the journal Social Science and Medicine looking at how sharing information about the pandemic's racial disparities affected people's policy opinions.

To explain more, we called Evan Lieberman, and he's with us now. Professor Lieberman, thank you so much for being with us.

EVAN LIEBERMAN: Hi, Michel. Thanks so much for having me on your show.

MARTIN: So, as briefly as you can and as simply as you can, what question were you asking? And what did you find?

LIEBERMAN: Well, really, we wanted to know, what is the effect of sharing information about these racial disparities, and who is dying from COVID? And so we conducted a survey of American adults, and we randomized the presentation of this information. So we asked them first a bunch of questions about themselves and their attitudes towards various groups, including about white people and about Black people. And we know that respondents don't always answer those questions so honestly, but we gave them a scale from 0 to 100 which allowed them to answer kind of colder or hotter along that scale.

And then what we did was we randomized who would get a visualization of that data. You know, at least among those Black respondents who weren't aware of the size of the disparities, those that learned this information said they were more likely to be concerned about the risk of infection. And that was good news. You know, for white respondents who said they had very favorable views towards Black people, there was also some good news, which is, they were more likely to say that the government should do more.

But then the bad news is that, you know, among those white respondents who had less favorable or colder views towards Black people, when they learned this information, on average, they said that they perceive much less risk of infection to themselves and to people in their networks. And they were more likely to say that, hey, government is already doing too much on COVID.

MARTIN: So just to put it simply, that white people who expressed more negative feelings toward Black people, when they heard that they were racial disparities, they saw less risk to themselves, and they were more hostile toward efforts to contain the pandemic.

LIEBERMAN: Exactly.

MARTIN: Because obviously, we've done a lot of reporting around this - just anecdotal reporting. And what we found is a lot of people saying, I don't know - personally know anybody who's gotten sick, so I don't believe it. And what you're saying, it's actually something else, which is that more information that says that this affects people disproportionately makes people not only not care, but it makes them want to just ignore it.

LIEBERMAN: Well, look; I think for everybody, a virus is invisible, and we rely upon public health authorities and the media to give us information about how to understand what's going on. So, of course, to a certain extent, when public health authorities or the media tell us that there are particular groups - right? - let's say it's older people - that are more likely to be affected or infected, you might say, well, I'm a younger person, and this is not likely to affect me. And our point was that among certain groups of white Americans who don't feel particularly close and aren't in networks with African Americans, learning about the fact that this was disproportionately a problem that faced African Americans, they really relied on that heuristic to say, hey, this isn't really our problem.

MARTIN: Is there any precedent for this that kind of - that - where one might have sort of predicted this? Do you see this phenomena in any other place? Or have you previously seen something like this emerge?

LIEBERMAN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the reason why I was so interested in this problem and keen to study it in the American context was because previously, I had done a lot of work around AIDS politics and policies and the effects of racial and ethnic difference not just in the United States, but all around the world. And so, you know, in a lot of countries, whether it was the United States or South Africa or India, we saw similar dynamics of shaming and blaming and people saying, hey, this isn't our problem. This is someone else's problem. And that's always been a cause for denialism on the part of political leaders.

MARTIN: You know, you raise a really important dilemma, though - a really difficult dilemma - because you will certainly remember this. At the early stages of the pandemic, when it became clear that certain groups were more likely to be affected than others, there was a whole lot of conversation about how this should be communicated. And some of the sort of activists were really frustrated that they didn't feel that there was more sort of targeted messaging aimed at people who were more likely to be vulnerable based on lots of different factors - their race, the fact that they live in crowded conditions or the fact that they live in multigenerational households, the fact that they have underlying medical conditions and so forth. On the other hand, what you're saying is that same messaging, while it may persuade some people to take better care, persuades other people not to care. That's a tough one.

LIEBERMAN: It's a real conundrum. And I wish there was an easy solution, but there isn't because, exactly as you point out, the same messaging can have both positive and negative benefits. And targeting is important, right? But we also, particularly in - with an infectious disease like COVID, where we really are all vulnerable and we really need everyone to participate, you know, particularly now, at a time when we have vaccines and we want to achieve herd immunity, we need everyone to feel a sense of responsibility. And so targeted messages can have a double-edged sword quality to them. And I think that it's important to complement those with messages that remind all of us that this really is a problem that affects all of us.

MARTIN: In sharing this article you wrote, simply documenting and publicizing inequalities is not sufficient to generate needed solidarity. So if one is willing to acknowledge that this is a racially divided society, a polarized society in many ways - not in every way - are there strategies that did seem to generate solidarity or that might lead to better outcomes? Or is there anything that you can sort of point to in this study that suggests what a more effective way to communicate this might be?

LIEBERMAN: Well, I think it's important for us to keep reminding one another how interconnected we are, how our shared fate exists together depending on the actions we take and don't take, and perhaps that we have a common purpose beyond, you know, national borders and obligations towards one another. Those are obviously sentimental appeals, but I think if made creatively can help to affect people.

But more pragmatically, even to remind people, hey, the economy is only going to be open if all of us are protected from this virus. If we're able to achieve herd immunity, we need to operate cooperatively and to an extent collectively to overcome this. So those sorts of messages - you know, when I think back about what was successful in country cases in the responses to AIDS, the Brazilian case was one interesting, rare example where they went kind of full-stop on a national solidarity campaign to overcome the pandemic. And they were quite successful and aggressive in doing so. And I think we need to do something similar here in the United States.

MARTIN: That was Evan Lieberman. He's a professor of political science and contemporary Africa at MIT. Evan Lieberman, thanks so much for being with us.

LIEBERMAN: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.