By Lana Sumner-Borema
In the U.S., public talk and political rhetoric surrounding COVID-19 has created widespread levels of public mistrust in health professionals.
To evaluate the impact of words during the pandemic, Dr. Paige Banaji, associate professor of English and director of first-year writing in the department of English and foreign languages, gave The Buccaneer some much needed insight of COVID-19 rhetoric in America.
According to Banaji, the mistrust in many Americans towards healthcare professionals stems from four major roots.
The polarization of political parties in the U.S. today is the first reason for mistrust; for some Americans messages are only halfheard and trusted from those similar in politics. Rather than searching for scientific research, the public has been prioritizing identity with their party.
“There is a high level of mistrust between conservatives and liberals… a lot of people tend to listen more to their partisan political leaders than to the non-partisan scientific leaders,” said Banaji.
The second source of mistrust is a result of the subconscious barriers formed by the public to protect themselves against the pharmaceutical industry and healthcare system in general. With the opioid crisis still affecting many Americans, it seems reasonable to second guess respect for companies such as Pfizer.
As stated by Banaji, “We have been fighting for decades over the state of our healthcare system which has provided unequal access and let many people down.”
Her third reasoning for mistrust comes from the “changing” knowledge and messages on the virus throughout the pandemic. As an example, she referenced former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams’ deleted tweet from February 2020 stating masks “are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus.”
A mask mandate followed two months later, leaving the public confused. Americans were also confused by the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in their change of mask policy the summer of 2021, followed by a quick reversal as the Delta variant surged in the U.S.
Banaji said these changes in messaging are not to confuse or trick the public, but rather mirror the constantly changing knowledge of the virus.
“Either scientists learned more about the virus, or the virus changed, and this led to a changed message to the public,” she said.
“The change [of] guidance by the CDC over the summer to withdraw mask mandates for vaccinated individuals was in response to the incredible effectiveness of the vaccines for the virus at that time. With new variants, however, the vaccine’s effectiveness changed, and the mask mandate was reasserted.”
To further this concept Banaji referenced the American rhetorical theorist Wayne Booth and his book, “The Rhetoric of Rhetoric,” where he analyzes the relationship between reality and rhetoric.
Booth wrote about three types of realities: the first reality being things true and unchangeable, such as “the earth is round.” The second type of reality is one “created or shaped by rhetoric,” like how your spouse persuades you into a living room renovation that will change the reality of your future home.
The third type of reality is changeable but rather than being influenced by rhetoric, it’s changed by the natural world.
“The example he gives is of a volcano that is over 10,000 feet high, but after it erupts, it is only 9,700 feet,” Banaji said. “When public health officials change their message, are they responding to a changing reality, or are they creating a changing reality?”
A lot of the mistrust came from confusion of these realities. Americans who stopped trusting health officials within the pandemic tend to think the health officials are creating a changing reality rather than just responding to one.
The final distraction and reason for mistrust in medical officials is the number of false sources available to the public.
“There’s a whole lot of false information and disinformation on the internet that just feeds people’s mistrust,” Banaji said. “Instead, I think it’s important to consider which sources are the most credible and trustworthy.”
She said she follows CDC guidance and actively seeks out other credible sources.
“When looking at a pandemic, one would think that the science and medical fields are the most important to resolving our problems; however, a lot of the pandemic had to be handled with communication and rhetorical skills,” Banaji said. “It requires an understanding of psychology, sociology, ethics, a broad understanding of humanity… leaders need to galvanize all of their interdisciplinary skills and knowledge to respond.”
At the end of the day, students across the U.S. – like those at Barry with a liberal arts education – will be important leaders of the future in navigating problems like these. So, pay attention to societal trends, use credible sources to form decisions and pay attention in your freshman English class!