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Saving the economy means reopening wisely and changing minds | Opinion

Our worst-case scenario: economic stagnation beyond the pandemic, because Americans so distrust leaders that they resist returning to usual activities.

Gov. Tom Wolf and Health Secretary Rachel Levine March 4, 2020 have been figureheads for Pennsylvania's handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Gov. Tom Wolf and Health Secretary Rachel Levine March 4, 2020 have been figureheads for Pennsylvania's handling of the coronavirus crisis.Read moreCommonwealth Media Services

Flattening infection rates and growing unrest about a stagnant economy are increasing pressure on states to re-open. Governor Tom Wolf has initiated the process of re-opening for Pennsylvania, just like other states are doing nationwide.

These moves reflect partial re-openings, not returns to “business as usual.” Phased approaches mean that certain businesses are opening before others and open businesses still face restrictions like limiting customers at any one time.

Recovery will likely proceed in fits and starts, with states retracing steps if and when viral transmission spikes. Even in the best-case scenarios, the path to economic revitalization will be a trial and error process occurring over months, if not years.

But the current stakes are also high. Americans are watching closely, and results from this first foray will likely shape expectations about future attempts. And while they might be welcomed by some citizens, speedy decisions to re-open states could backfire if leaders bungle them by risking Americans’ safety through insufficient public health measures or failing to build trust through transparent communication. The worst-case scenario: economic stagnation beyond the pandemic itself, because Americans so distrust leaders that they resist returning to usual activities.

Reporting declining numbers of COVID cases won’t be enough to convince the public that it’s safe to return to malls and restaurants. Fear is one the strongest motivators of human behavior, and currently, fear is pervasive. Many are more worried about contracting COVID than experiencing severe the financial hardship it causes. Fear likely explains why Texans and Georgians are still avoiding restaurants even after re-openings.

To reboot the American economy, then, in addition to being thoughtful about reopenings, leaders must use communication strategies to build trust and open the minds of the public while opening the doors of businesses. This involves recognizing that humanstend to use mental shortcuts (called “heuristics” in behavioral science) when making decisions, particularly complex ones amid uncertainty.

For instance, people often base decisions on their recent experiences. This “availability” heuristic, drawing from readily available memories, can inadvertently lead to poor decisions, like avoiding plane flights after news of a recent crashes -- even though it’s safer to fly than drive. Other tendencies include overweighting information that resembles personal experiences, or that feels particularly striking.

To combat faulty heuristics and hasten economic revival, leaders must pair strong public health measures with effective communication. This involves two critical actions.

First, leaders need to communicate with the public using relatable data. So far many, including Pennsylvania leaders, have emphasized COVID case and death rates, which paint a slanted – and for many, unrelatable – picture that doesn’t offer guidance about how to re-engage in normal life. Americans need information that helps them accurately assess risk, like the risk of getting COVID in parks, restaurants, theaters, and malls. These data are not yet readily available, so officials should fund more research to produce it, complementing biomedical research and vaccine development.

» READ MORE: When will we reopen: How Pennsylvania decides what’s in the red, yellow, and green phases.

Second, government and public health leaders should partner with media and community partners on communication campaigns. News coverage often prioritizes catchy headlines, which we are more likely to remember and find striking. Whether intentional or not, it triggers decision-making heuristics. Communication should seek not only to spread pragmatic information, but frame it in a balanced fashion. For instance, to balance fear-inducing facts about cases and deaths, campaigns could feature information about Americans who’ve recovered from infection.

These solutions are no panacea. They must be paired with viral containment and measures to discourage Americans from jumping prematurely into restricted activities. Nonetheless, sensitivity to human psychology will play a key role in determining how and when the public returns to activities, and thus our economic recovery.

Joshua M. Liao is Director of the Value & Systems Science Lab and Medical Director of Payment Strategy at the University of Washington. Amol S. Navathe is co-Director of the Healthcare Transformation Institute and Assistant Professor of Medicine and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.