The Public Is Not Alone In Behaving Badly - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Catherine Pirkle

Catherine Pirkle is an associate professor at the Office of Public Health Studies at UH Manoa. She is co-lead of the Healthy Hawaii Initiative Evaluation Team, which works in collaboration with the Hawaii Department of Health.

With the alarming growth of COVID-19 cases, our state’s media and leadership have obsessively focused on the public’s “bad behavior.”

All summer, we have read stories about people breaking quarantine and gathering in large groups. In many of these articles, experts and non-experts alike out those who went to work while sick or speculate on whether or not the infected person was wearing a mask when around others.

In nearly every daily news digest from the COVID-19 Joint Information Center, the public is reminded to take personal responsibility. They are shamed for their lack of regard for others: Governor Ige had strong words for people who have let their guard down contributing to the surge in cases.

All state leaders echo the personal responsibility rhetoric, using a public relations strategy that is known as framing. They directly attribute spikes and surges to a misbehaving public, one that is unable to take responsibility for its actions.

Here are a couple of examples.

A top public health official said, “As long as individuals in our communities fail to accept personal responsibility for the spread of COVID-19, we are unfortunately going to see continued days of triple digit numbers.”

Premier Medical Group Hawaii team member esplain the swabbing process before performing a COVID-19 PCR swab test at Kakaako Waterfront Park parking lot. August 23, 2020
Many people are complying with COVID-19 restrictions and getting tested, such as by a Premier Medical Group Hawaii team at Kakaako Waterfront Park on Tuesday. But state and local leadership must step up their work on the virus. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Or, from our governor: “It’s clear that many across the state has relaxed their commitment in fighting against this COVID-19 infection … We have to take action to embrace the personal responsibility, to do what we can to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our community.”

Our major media outlets reinforce these sentiments, as demonstrated by a July 8 editorial in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser entitled, “Bad time to let down our guard.” Or more recently, in an Aug. 10 article in Civil Beat that asks, “So how badly are people behaving?”

Should we expect anything different? A story about an office where workers diligently wear their masks and sit 6 feet apart is hardly click-bait.

Nor are perhaps the more important questions about that office: Did the employer provide enough hand sanitizer? Is there sufficient ventilation? Do the workers have sick leave if they get ill? Are they paid enough to take time off?

Responsibility Rhetoric

While there is certainly evidence of poor decision-making, and we must all do our part, blaming the public for the current crisis obfuscates the responsibility of state and local leadership.

If the public is to blame for the current surge in infections, then our leadership is no longer responsible. It is an evasion technique that avoids asking hard questions, making hard choices, and more than anything, it avoids accountability.

Blaming the public allows for inaction on contributing factors to the spread of infection. These include limited access to health care for certain groups and for those that have lost their jobs, the lack of sick leave for many, insufficient wages to match the astronomical cost of living, and overcrowded housing that disproportionately affects our highest risk groups.

The use of personal responsibility rhetoric is one that the tobacco industry mastered in the early 1980s. As evidence mounted that Big Tobacco was responsible for the deaths of millions, it needed a public relations strategy that shifted blame elsewhere.

Through some trial and error, Big Tobacco realized that framing a public health crisis around personal responsibility was highly effective at reducing public outrage and in minimizing litigation. The tactic is so successful that it continues to be used by many other industries and interests to avoid accountability for public harms (e.g., gambling, firearms, etc.).

In the past month, Governor Ige reiterated the importance of personal responsibility at nearly every daily press briefing. Nearly all mass media venues have parroted this language, as have all the most prominent elected and appointed leaders involved in the response to COVID-19.

To be fair, our state leadership is not alone in using this framing. The rhetoric of personal responsibility is also coming from the federal government.

For example, here is a transcript from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “We owe it to our nation’s children to take personal responsibility to do everything we can to lower the levels of COVID-19.”

Knowing the occupants of our executive branch, should we really be surprised that the federal government is applying techniques learned from Big Tobacco to defer responsibility for the crisis?

Punitive Action

If a badly behaving public is responsible for out-of-control infections, then a natural extension of this logic is to punish the public when it misbehaves. The criminalization of previously normal and healthy behaviors, such as walking on the beach or in a park, reflect this logic.

Our state is currently using police and other security personnel to enforce restrictions on a variety of behaviors for which such actions would have been unimaginable six months ago. What’s more, it is unclear if the targeted behaviors currently pose a risk to public safety.

State officials appear unable to provide epidemiological evidence to justify many of the restrictions. The lack of evidence of major outdoor transmission events, especially when juxtaposed against other known sources of outbreaks, threatens the perceived legitimacy of these restrictions.

Crucial consideration of the fairness and proportionality of the punishments for our misdeeds is lacking. Bad behaviors, such as hiking, walking in a park, and going to the beach, are all now subject to criminal misdemeanor charges that can result in a fine up to $5,000 and/or a year in jail. In other words, members of the public who engage in these behaviors are subject to the same punishments (actually, in many cases, less) as those who committed a DUI, assault, or minor drug crime.

A Cautionary Tale

Personal responsibility rhetoric is effective until it is not. In the face of public demand for greater accountability brought on, in part, by whistleblowers leaking evidence of the deliberate misleading of the public, Big Tobacco became vulnerable to a flood of litigation in the late 1990 and early 2000s.

The public relations strategy of Big Tobacco ultimately failed because the public can only take personal responsibility for their behaviors when they are empowered to do so.

For combating COVID-19, this means doing much more than giving daily press briefings and public safety announcements. People need clear messages, articulated in ways and languages they understand and across media platforms they actually use. They need support to follow the messages.

As we are learning, not everyone can access masks and other personal protective equipment. And, many people do not have or cannot afford to take sick leave.

The engagement of police in public health is risky business.

For those with low incomes and no sick leave, the choice is often between paying for food and rent or staying at home when sick. Asking people to change “their bad behaviors” under such circumstances not only lacks empathy, but is almost certainly doomed to fail. Other actions are thus needed, including in this case, policy change to provide sick leave to our most vulnerable.

A Final Warning

The engagement of police in public health is risky business. As articulated in this excellent commentary, the use of police to enforce measures perceived as illegitimate fundamentally damages the relationships among the state, police, and public. This, in turn, can generate disorder and damage the foundations of democracy.

When done well, police can be successfully engaged in outbreak control, but their application needs to be targeted and information driven. The United Kingdom, for example, is using an approach built on the concepts of “engage, explain, encourage” and “enforce” only when necessary. It is an approach that seeks to build public cooperation, which is a necessary prerequisite to managing the virus.

COVID-19 restrictions will have to be applied to varying degrees for months to come. We need a maximum of public goodwill and cooperation.

Unfortunately, our response is eroding these fundamentals. At the end of the day, the question really begs asking, who is it again that is behaving badly?

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About the Author

Catherine Pirkle

Catherine Pirkle is an associate professor at the Office of Public Health Studies at UH Manoa. She is co-lead of the Healthy Hawaii Initiative Evaluation Team, which works in collaboration with the Hawaii Department of Health.

Latest Comments (0)

Would love to have heard suggestions from a public health expert like Dr. Pirkle rather than a long commentary shifting the blame from the public to the government leaders. Sure, she make a couple of good points such as how are low income folks to stay home when they feel sick when they don’t have sick leave and need the income to survive. But this is a broader issue that private companies need to offer. The federal government can pass legislation on paid sick leave for low wage workers, gig/contract workers etc., but the Republicans refuse to. As a specialist in public health, the author should recognize that here in Hawaii, it is a minority of people and businesses that are flouting COVID-19 safety rules and spoiling it for everyone. Enough blame game commentaries - Let’s offer actionable and fair solutions instead.

kbaybaby · 3 years ago

Excellent article that addresses the status quo, but personal responsibility rhetoric works in our communities, in Hawaiian, kuleana and the kapu laid down by our leaders and kumu, but again, perhaps our way of understanding personal responsibility is going to be marginalized by other ways of conceptualizing problems and solutions. Our way will work for many people because it addresses a lot of problems systemically: for example we do have caretakers in Hawaiian communities (not enough) that cordoned off access to places, agitated against RIMPAC and tv programs invading our communities, collecting resources, feeding and caring for kupuna, growing food and protecting resources from mountain to sea.  And we utilized networks like Hālau hula and different avenues of learning ot mobilize communication and response. The narrow way "responsibility" is conceived in this essay as mere "rhetoric" is not reflective of the way kuleana seeks to operate in favor of a more healthy Hawaiian community. Something many of us seek to expand even as we are met with mainstream rhetoric that continues to marginalize island ways of knowing and living. 

Makaulii · 3 years ago

Yep…there is plenty of blame to go around.  Managing the pandemic is challenging without a lot of easy answers.  One politician suggested "In a situation like this it’s almost impossible to get graded an "A" but not that hard to get a "B" .  Without reiterating many of the points already made in this discussion I give state leadership a "C" and that is giving them the benefit of the doubt.  We live on Maui and I while I’m not a big fan of mayor Victorino, primarily based on his unwillingness to work with our citizen elected County Council, I give Mayor Mike a good solid "B" on pandemic response.  No one is perfect but I expect intelligence, honesty, compassion, strength and transparency in our elected officials

jimd · 3 years ago

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