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  • Marie Trout

Covid-19 News Fatigue, Strategic Ambiguity, and Breaking Resolve

These days, social media lights up with claims that Covid-19 is a lie; that it is no worse than the flu; that social distancing measures are attempts at enforcing “socialism,” etc.

Holding tension between our thoughts, feelings, and our actions (or lack of ability to act) in times of such uncertainty is extremely difficult. It is difficult for everyone.

It is difficult for those who have to put their lives at risk every day to go to work.

It is difficult for those of us who have lost our ability to work and generate an income.

It is difficult for those who are losing their health insurance along with being fired.

It is difficult for those who never had access to healthcare.

It is difficult for those who are unable to pay the bills.

It is difficult for those who are older or have pre-existing health conditions.

It is difficult for those who love someone who is older or have pre-existing health conditions.

The situation sucks and makes for a perfect growing surface for anxiety and fear that grow unchecked in our socially isolated petri dishes of sequestered loneliness. 

Such a situation requires transparent, inspiring, and informed leadership to help hold society together. Some countries and states have such leadership.

The messages coming from the White House however, utilize strategic ambiguity as a communication tool. This way of communicating largely allows for people to believe what they want to believe and for the President to remain the focus of attention.

His way of communicating is lauded by some as a tool to confuse, divert, portray (perceived) strength, and persuade. However, the consequences are unethical when used as a default strategy to cover up mistakes, hide facts, and confuse, deflect, and divide. Particularly in a time of national and international crisis.

As a result, we now have people defying local leadership and local ordinances, and protesting in the streets.

They want the uncertainty to end. Encouraged by a President’s twitter call to “liberate” states with Democratic governors, and building on his earlier thoughts about that the “cure” being worse than the illness itself, they stand up. They protest.

They claim that liberty is under attack because of state-mandated social-distancing or lockdown orders.

They are part of a group that feel worn out by the news. They are irritated over the complexity of the issues, and are angry about that nobody can give them a clear, straightforward path forward.

A majority within the group are white, Republican or Republican-leaning, and don’t follow the news all that closely. Many typically live in rural or suburban areas.

For this group, there are two typical responses:

1. To detach and withdraw. They don’t march, they stay quiet except maybe for occasional venting on social media about longing for normalcy, peace, and harmony. They believe it is in their interest to socially distance because they have health issues or are older, or just believe it is the most responsible thing to do right now. They believe in personal responsibility and don’t see it as the role of government to mandate behavior.

2. To stand up, incite civil unrest, make noise, and defy local leadership (particularly if such leadership is Democratic). They disregard also the official line from state and national government, the WHO, and instead respond directly to the President’s tweets and off-the-cuff remarks. They are emboldened by his use of strategic ambiguity as they respond to his “unofficial” tweets and leave his more official-sounding statements tuned out. They feel that they have a direct line to their President and that he will protect them. They feel they can trust him because he speaks directly to them.

For the first group response, the problem remains that, until a vaccine is approved or we have the ability to test everyone, personal responsibility is only effective in mitigating viral spread if it is shared communally.

For the second group response, the fact that the President is skilled at persuading and manipulating facts to make it seem like he has their backs, only hurts everyone’s efforts at galvanizing the nation to withstand an extended mitigation battle with an invisible, viral agent. Their activism might make for some feel-good group bonding, but the joy is short-lived, fickle, and potentially deadly.

For this group as a whole, no matter how they respond and where they turn, most official channels release news and information that is directly counter how they feel. Desperation and disbelief is building.

For the rest of us, the noise emanating directly or indirectly from this group is added to the barrage of difficult information we deal with and try to make sense of. Will their noise weaken our resolve? Will it end our patience? Will it cast doubt on the advice we otherwise trusted?

My guess is that as this goes on, the US will find itself more divided than ever.

Eventually answers and more lasting solutions to combat the virus will emerge as more testing and treatment options become available. Once they do, each side will claim victory, foresight, and told-ya-so.

And some will have the proven track record giving them the right to do so.

We know however that no matter what, President Trump will claim victory, continue to place blame elsewhere, and fire or disenfranchise those who dare to criticize him or his actions.

The problem with exposing an Emperor without Clothes in this case, is that he plays to all sides at the same time.

He claims he has absolute authority over states ability to reopen one day yet delegates responsibility to states for doing so a day later. Early this year, he laughed at, minimized, and denied the seriousness of the virus for months, while claiming in March that he “felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” 

And so on and so forth. No matter what, the President has set himself up for claiming victory no matter what happens.

It is, and will remain, up to the rest of us to see through it, to keep calm, and to carry on.

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