The new coronavirus outbreak, named COVID-19 by scientists, poses a major challenge for our health system. As people become sick and need medical care, they will need resources like hospital beds and ventilators. However, if many people become sick in a short period of time, there will not be enough of these resources to care for them all. If we are to treat every sick person with the best possible medical care, we need to both prevent and delay new infections. We know from history and medical science that public behavior is the most important tool for this prevention. But for the public to help, they need to know what to do and how to do it, as well as to understand why these behaviors are so important. People take their cues from those around them in making sense of new, uncertain situations. This makes it very important to make sure that everybody is getting good information about the risks of COVID-19 and how to prevent it. Official messages need to reflect scientific knowledge, and myths that pop up in communities need to be addressed so that people can understand and debunk them.
Our research team has been studying how people are thinking about the risks of COVID-19, and what they are doing to protect themselves and their community. One key finding from that work is that when people are uncertain about the risk, they are more likely to rely on what other people are doing to determine what the right thing to do is. We also find that people's main concerns about social distancing are that they are worried about getting by without a paycheck and how they will get food and meet other urgent needs. These findings suggest that policies should make sure both workers and small business owners have enough money and food to get them through the near future, and that they can feel confident about this support continuing so that they can focus on staying safe and keeping other people safe.
We plan to do surveys and experiments to help us better understand these concerns and guide policy action. First, we need to know whether helping people understand how to prevent infection will actually lead them to protect themselves. We will conduct experiments to test and identify how best to help people understand and change their behavior, especially for those who are not fully engaging in social distancing. Then, over the next few months as the situation changes, we will keep our research up to date and develop messages to help people understand what is happening and how their behavior can help protect themselves and the people around them.