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Web extra: Dr. Celine Gounder on how political divisions shaped the U.S. COVID response

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Listen to our main hour reflecting on 2 years of COVID here.

Dr. Celine Gounder is a senior fellow and editor-at-large for public health at Kaiser Health News. She served on the Biden-Harris transition COVID-19 Advisory Board.

We reached out to Dr. Gounder to hear her thoughts on why the U.S. is still so bad at talking about the pandemic.

One of the reasons, she says, comes down to political division in this country, and how it coincided with the pandemic:

DR. CELINE GOUNDER: I think what had the most detrimental impact was the fact that COVID hit during a year of the presidential election. And we saw something similar play out during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Ebola hit in the middle of presidential elections in some of the West African countries. In West Africa, you had politicization of things like hand-washing and spraying chlorine to disinfect the homes of people where Ebola patients had died.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Dr. Gounder says that in West Africa, public health messaging and campaign messaging were often very tightly linked with one another.

GOUNDER: In Guinea, where I was working, you had members of the president’s party or supporters of the president going door to door to people’s homes, saying they were there to do Ebola related education. And they would go wearing these yellow T-shirts with the face of the president on their chests.

Now, imagine if somebody with a Biden-Harris t-shirt or a Trump MAGA red hat came to your door and said they were there to do health education about COVID. That was not well received. And I think unfortunately, some of the health education about COVID was seen as if it were coming from a certain party, and I think that created issues as well.

CHAKRABARTI: OK, so the politicization of COVID left a lot of people frustrated, regardless of what their own politics were. Some people felt COVID was being overblown. Others were frustrated by their fellow Americans not following the science. So Dr. Celine Gounder says that to address these beliefs, health care providers really need to approach conversations with patients with understanding and empathy. She recalled a conversation with one patient who was skeptical about COVID vaccines.

GOUNDER: Much of my conversation with her was just about what was it like being an older Black woman living in Baltimore during the pandemic. As somebody who myself has lived in Baltimore, I have witnessed firsthand some of the issues with race and racism in the city. And so I asked her, what had been her experience with the health care system in Baltimore? What had been her experience on the job? You know, what was her employer doing in terms of keeping employees safe during the pandemic? What did her work look like? How did it change?

Towards the end of a 45 minute conversation, she …  asked me, How did you get the vaccine? What was that like? How did you decide to get it? And then she thanked me for my time. And then one of her family members, I was connected to her by a family member of hers, who’s a friend of mine, texted me within the hour and said, What did you do? And I said, I don’t know. What did I do?

And he said she’s decided to get vaccinated. I think that’s an example of just showing that kind of curiosity, that desire to understand, people want to feel understood. I think that was the effective tool, not a coercive approach to trying to convince somebody.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.