How Covid is Changing the Way of Public Health Study


The pandemic’s global scope has brought groups together from around the world as never before, says an article published in Nature.

“Maybe I’ll get ten more people and some more data points,” says Jay Van Bavel a psychologist at New York University.

Survey data collection

During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, he wanted to identify the social factors that best predict a person’s support for public-health measures, such as physical distancing or closing restaurants. He had a handful of collaborators ready to collect survey data. But because the pandemic was going on everywhere, he wondered whether he could scale up the project. So he tried something he’d never done before.

“It was a massive collaboration,” he says as more than 200 scientists from 67 countries joined the effort. In the end, the researchers were able to collect data on more than 46,000 people. The effort showed how, on the whole, people who reported that national identity was important to them were more likely to support public-health policies.

A Unique Opportunity For Social Scientists

For social scientists, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a unique opportunity — a natural experiment that “cuts across all cultures and socio-economic groups”, says Andreas Olsson, a psychologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

Everyone is facing similar threats to their health and livelihoods, “so we can see how people respond differently to this depending on culture, social groups, and individual differences”, he says.

Researchers have been able to compare people’s behaviors before and after large policy changes, for example, or to study the flow of information and misinformation more easily. It has also forced many social scientists to adapt their methods during a time when in-person interviews and experiments have been next to impossible. Some expect that innovations spurred by the pandemic could outlive the current crisis and might even permanently change the field.

“Now that we’ve got the infrastructure and experience, we’ll be able to do this for all kinds of things,” he says.

Social vaccine boosters

Many were eager to apply their work towards understanding the public response to practices such as lockdowns and mask mandates. In the survey of more than 46,000 people, Van Bavel and his colleagues showed that countries in which people were most in favor of precautionary measures tended to be those that fostered a sense of public unity and cohesion. A sense, he says, that “we’re all in this together”. That was somewhat counter-intuitive. Right-wing political ideology correlated with resistance to public-health measures among survey participants, but, on the whole, a strong national identity predicted more support for such measures. Van Bavel says this suggests that it might be possible to leverage national identity when promoting public-health policies.

A study published in February surveyed more than 12,000 people in 6 countries — Brazil, Italy, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, and the United States — about their willingness to share a message encouraging social distancing.

The message could be endorsed by actor Tom Hanks, celebrity Kim Kardashian, a prominent government official from the survey-taker’s country, or Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland.

Respondents from all countries were most willing to share the message when it came from Fauci (although in the United States, where COVID-19 has been highly politicized, he has become a divisive figure for some). Celebrity endorsements were relatively ineffective by comparison.

Preliminary research suggests that aligning the message with recipients’ values or highlighting social approval can also be influential. Michele Gelfand, a psychologist at the University of Maryland in College Park, is part of a team running an ‘intervention tournament’ to identify ways of promoting mask-wearing among conservatives and liberals in the United States.

An Economic Crisis For Republicans

One message they are testing emphasizes that mask-wearing will ‘help us to reopen our economy more quickly’ — an approach designed to appeal to Republicans, who are more likely to view the pandemic as an economic crisis than a health one. Another intervention highlights harm avoidance — a value that liberal people say is important to them. The message emphasizes that a mask ‘will keep you safe’.

To Encourage Republicans To Adhere To Public-Health

The researchers are testing eight interventions, or ‘nudges’, that reflect different moral values and factors specific to COVID-19. The aim is to work out which are most effective at encouraging these political groups to adhere to public-health guidance.

“We’re pitting them against one another to see which nudge works best,” Gelfand says.

It’s a study design that can test multiple interventions simultaneously, and could be deployed on a large scale across many geographical regions — a benefit made more urgent by the pandemic. The results have not yet been published.

“We’re seeing things that work,” Milkman says. They’ve found, for example, that texting people to say a flu shot had been reserved especially for them boosted vaccination rates

“We’ve had a real problem engaging care-home staff — particularly young females, many of whom are skeptical about the vaccine,” Martin says.

But using Milkman’s approach, along with other insights (such as the idea that the messenger’s identity also matters), Martin’s program attained 93% coverage of care-home staff in Jersey, compared with around 80% in other jurisdictions.

Depolarization Research

Van Bavel and his colleagues used tracking data from 15 million smartphones per day to look at correlations between US voting patterns and adherence to public health recommendations.

People in counties that voted for Republican Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, for example, practiced 14% less physical distancing between March and May 2020 than did people in areas that voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton.

The study also identified a correlation between the consumption of conservative news and reduced physical distancing and found that the partisan differences regarding physical distancing increased over time.

The research possibilities opened up by tracking are “beyond my dreams”, says Walter Quattrociocchi, a data scientist at the Ca’Foscari University of Venice, Italy.

“We have so much more data to measure social processes now,” he says, and the pandemic has provided a way to put these data to work.

His group used location data from 13 million Facebook users to look at how people moved around France, Italy, and the United Kingdom during the early months of the pandemic.

Internet-Based Surveys, A Trend Accelerated During Pandemic

A US study of people’s daily activities during the pandemic — such as going to work, visiting family, or dining at restaurants — received more than 6,700 responses per day on average. Results showed that political partisanship had a much greater role than did local COVID-19 rates in influencing safe behaviors. Self-identified Republicans were nearly 28% more likely to be mobile than Democrats were, and this gap widened over the course of the study period from April to September last year.

Post-Lockdown Legacy

The pandemic is clearly changing how researchers study behavior — and in ways that could outlast the lockdowns. “I think people will continue to seek to do bigger studies with more laboratories to produce more robust and widely applicable findings,” says Van Bavel. The samples collected through these projects are more diverse than they are for typical approaches, and so the impact from these studies could be much higher, he says.

“The COVID-19 crisis has also made researchers much more willing to collaborate and share information, and the pace of publishing and implementing findings has sped up, “I wrote a paper about some of our findings over the Christmas holidays in a week, says Milkman. She expedited the manuscript because she felt the findings were urgent and she wanted to get them into the public domain.

Brian Nosek, executive director at the Center for Open Science, a non-profit organization in Charlottesville, Virginia, sees the pandemic as a chance to rethink some of the fundamentals of how science is done.

“It’s given us an occasion to say, ‘Well, how should we be doing this?’” he says, with ‘this’ being everything from teaching and lab work, to study designs and collaboration.

The ways that people communicate in the field and engage with collaborators have “fundamentally changed”, he says. “I don’t imagine we’ll go back.”

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Source: Nature





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