12 May 2022

Don’t be afraid to feed the fear

The Back Page

Scare campaigns are the key to covid compliance.


As the covid pandemic grinds on and the variants abound, it is prudent to turn our thoughts to the safety and prevention messaging that has been employed to combat the viral spread.

Heaven forbid the world should encounter another such catastrophe any time soon, but if we did, what would be the key takeout from our initial public messaging response to the spiky menace?  

Thanks to research undertaken by Florida Atlantic University, we now have a better understanding of what makes folks tick when it comes to influencing their covid prevention behaviour, and the findings do little to bolster one’s faith in the beneficence of human nature.

In a nutshell, what the boffins conclude is that people are more responsive – as in be prepared to take preventative measures – when motivated by the fear of becoming severely ill from covid rather than concern over the numbers of cases.     

The research, published in the Journal of Community Healthalso found folks were less likely to be influenced by messaging about how contagious the virus was or how likely they were to catch it.  

“To optimise prevention practices, the study provides evidence that public health education programs should emphasise the potential severity of covid-19 over the potential susceptibility of contracting covid-19, without concern that the relationship depends on the alternative variable,” the authors wrote.

“Healthcare educators and community leaders should consider emphasising the severity of covid-19 including post-covid-19 conditions known as long covid such as weakness and respiratory issues like a lingering cough that can persist for weeks or even months after being infected. This increased emphasis on the severity of covid-19 could lead to increased prevention practices,” senior author Dr Michael DeDonno told media.

To put that in layperson’s terms, people might be more prepared to wash their hands, wear masks and keep their distance if they think they might get really sick or die because of catching covid, but less so because it is in the greater interest of the broader community to keep the covid numbers down.

As a correspondent of advancing years, it saddens me to say that I am not totally surprised by findings which suggest self-interest trumps altruism, even when the stakes involve a devasting global pandemic that disproportionately affects the poor and the vulnerable.

Politicians have had this figured this out from the dawn of civilisation.

If you see something that elevates your dander, vent that spleen to felicity@medicalrepublic.com.au