What did we learn during COVID?

Infectious Diseases

The COVID pandemic taught us many things about the state of our health and our public health system, and these lessons should be top of mind today.

During these last two weeks of March, Those Nerdy Girls is honoring our fourth anniversary by reminiscing about where we started, at the height of the COVID pandemic in 2020. Back then, we were trying desperately to keep up with the constant news and updates as our knowledge of the virus and its impact on us seemed to change by the minute. While the acute phase of the crisis is thankfully behind us, there are some lessons we learned throughout the process that we should never forget. Here are a few of them:

1️⃣ Trust in health and public health institutions and in each other is flagging dangerously.

You don’t have to look too far, especially if you’re looking on social media, to find expressions of distrust in the CDC, health departments, and other public health authorities. A low-level simmer of distrust boiled over during the pandemic, as many people felt frustrated and lost in the uncertainty and overwhelm of new information and guidelines that seemed to emerge almost daily. Trust in each other, which is associated with institutional trust, also appeared low. We heard stories of people in masks being attacked in some places and disagreements on social media sometimes became violent and threatening. We need to do everything we can to build back this trust. Those Nerdy Girls tries to do this by translating public health guidance and making it real and relatable. We use empathy in our communications and explicitly prioritize humility and impartiality, which has led our readers to say they can consistently trust us. This approach needs to be more widespread in public health communication, and public health communication efforts in general need to be better resourced and better evaluated to ensure they are having the intended impact and nurturing trust.

2️⃣ Technology is our friend, but we need to make sure everyone has access to it.

Most of us became very comfortable with relatively new technologies, like Zoom, during the pandemic. We used these platforms to work, socialize, and even visit the doctor. Many of us still rely on these platforms to do our work (including yours truly – TNG is an all-remote team!). But we have to be very aware of inequities in this case, too. The so-called “digital divide” is a real concern, and there is a clear divide in people’s ability to get trustworthy, factual health information online by race and income level. This ties into some of the inequities we saw during the COVID pandemic, where the toll of the pandemic was especially heavy in communities of color. As many more opportunities to get healthcare as well as health-related information appear online, we need to make sure that everyone has access to these platforms as a matter of basic need.

3️⃣ We need to prepare better for the next time, and we need to do this now.

While many state and local health departments and other stakeholders sprung into action quickly when the pandemic hit, it is clear that we were largely unprepared for this crisis. One of the biggest shortfalls were the challenges public health authorities faced in communicating the latest science while also addressing uncertainty and making guidelines actionable to everyday people. As a result, trust was broken and desperately needs to be restored. This means working now to figure out the best ways of engaging in science communication that engenders trust, whether that be through finding and training trusted messengers to deliver health and science messages on a local level, conglomerates of smaller grassroots communications efforts (like Those Nerdy Girls) that can translate scientific findings and changing guidelines, or better resourcing communication efforts in public health departments.

As we celebrate our fourth anniversary, we believe that TNG can be a big part of the solution. We can improve science communication moving forward and prepare more people with the data, science, and media literacy they need to navigate the health information landscape, including in the context of future pandemics. Your support is crucial to our ability to fulfill this mission. If you haven’t already, please consider becoming a paid subscriber to our Substack newsletter, donating, or buying some of our merch (they make great gifts!). We so appreciate each and every one of our readers, and we are determined to ensure that our work makes a meaningful difference in your lives. Thank you for your support, and happy anniversary to Those Nerdy Girls!

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Further Reading:

Harvard School of Public Health on inequities during the pandemic

Pew Charitable Trusts on the digital divide

National Academies on rethinking communication after the pandemic

Paper on improving communications during a pandemic

Brookings Institute case study on digital equity work in Cleveland

Study on the digital divide in health information

Link to Original Substack Post