A couple months into the pandemic, my stepsister posted pictures and videos on Instagram to document her cross-country travels with her boyfriend. I reacted to these the same way I reacted to Netflix’s tweet informing us that the pronunciation of Emily In Paris is meant to rhyme: No. Full stop. This is wrong on so many levels. Then, when the numbers started getting worse, I thought that she would take precautions more seriously. Instead, though, she’s continued along her own personal country-wide Silk Road, visiting multiple states and even making planning to go as far as Colombia. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a Level 4 Travel Health Notice for Colombia, which basically means “do not visit.”) When she returns, she expects to stay (inside) my mom and stepfather’s house for Christmas. All of it makes me wonder whether she hasn’t seen the news this year or doesn’t understand that ’tis the season to not kill your family.
We’re well into the holiday season, and you may find yourself having more conversations with people who don’t believe in the risks of COVID-19—or perhaps simply don’t believe those risks apply to them. So what can you say to these COVID-19 skeptics, who might well be beloved friends and family members, to help see the dangerous errors of their ways? What exactly can you say to them?
Clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD, says the best way to help someone see the light is to kick off your situation with commonalities upon which you can agree. In this pandemic-specific situation, these might be about how much we all hate wearing masks (but still absolutely must do so), or that there’s only so many times you can rewatch Parks and Recreation.
You can also talk about common feelings you may share, like boredom and loneliness, when you talk to people who aren’t observing COVID-19 guidelines responsibly before you share your stance on their choices. But, don’t make any personal accusations that may move the conversation from being productive into a combative place. “Reassure them that you care for them, then set your boundaries, and refuse to argue with them. Don’t get drawn into a misinformation war,” says Dr. Daramus. “I know it feels like you’re backing down, but setting and keeping your boundaries is a much more powerful message. This has been going on since March. If arguing was going to help, it would have helped by now.”
“About 2,200 Americans are dying every day from COVID-19, 1,800 from heart disease, and 1,660 from cancers. However, no one is arguing that heart disease and cancer are not serious health problems.” —Timothy Brewer, MD
As far as what you can say, sticking to the facts is your best bet. Two of the biggest pieces of misinformation about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, are that it’s not real or no more dangerous than the flu, says Timothy Brewer, MD, professor of medicine and epidemiology at UCLA. “Both are wrong.” With that in mind, here’s what exactly Dr. Brewer suggests saying to people who are acting as if COVID-19 isn’t the huge, life-threatening force that it very clearly is: “On average right now, about 2,200 Americans are dying every day from COVID-19. To put this in perspective, about 1,800 Americans die every day from heart disease and 1,660 Americans die every day from cancers,” he says. “However, no one is arguing that heart disease and cancer are not serious health problems.”
Dr. Daramus adds that when you talk to COVID-19 skeptics, it’s okay to offer information so long as you’re prepared for them to dismiss what you’re saying. That potential response is precisely why sticking with your own boundaries is so key, because ultimately, you can only control your own actions and hope those who know, love, and trust you also listen and follow suit. Accordingly, if certain people are trying to convince you to get together, be forthright with your comfort level, and share that you will only go into situations with people who respect your restrictions. If they don’t, she says to keep your response short and simple by saying, “I’m not comfortable with that.”
Unfortunately, if someone doesn’t believe in the risks of the global pandemic by now, there’s not much that will change their mind, says Dr. Daramus. “Since I’m in health care, I feel like I still have a responsibility to encourage people to stay safe and healthy, but there’s a lot of research to suggest that consequences are the real change-makers,” she says. “[People] have to see that taking risks with others’ health is going to have consequences. And sometimes not even then. I’ve known a couple of people who came close to dying and still believed in the conspiracy theories.”
So you may be able to get someone to wear a mask, or to quarantine temporarily in order to see you, or to stop arguing if they want to have a conversation with you. But often, the biggest changes will only come from a negative outcome that affects them personally.
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