The Breath Which Leads All Creatures Is Also in the Spheres

Blame and Shame at Odds with Trust and Health

Some learning comes only the hard way. In this pandemic, we see some countries cope well while others struggle. In the process, we can learn a great deal on many fronts. But the case study of Denmark is offering an especially vivid lesson in the value of avoiding blame and shame while building of trust in regard to our health.

Based on the experience in Denmark, we see confirmation once again that blame and shame make a lousy strategy for public health – even when they’re dressed up in the friendlier garb of personal responsibility. That’s because it leads to distrust and personal policing between neighbors. We’ve seen plenty of finger-pointing at covidiots. While that might feel good in the moment, it amplifies divisions and distrust in public health guidance. People need encouragement, not policing, because trust in public health is essential for a good outcome in a public health emergency.

Ending the Emergency Without Blame and Shame

Two weeks ago, the public health emergency for COVID-19 essentially ended in Denmark. All restrictions lifted. This disease is no longer a critical threat there. The country has high vaccination rates – 86 percent of all eligible citizens have received at least one shot. Over the age of 50, an impressive 95 percent of the population has the full vaccination.

How did this happen? Michael Bang Petersen is a political scientist with an intense interest in behavioral psychology. He leads the HOPE project at Aarhus University to study how democracies cope with the pandemic. Writing in the Washington Post, Petersen explains that keeping blame and shame at bay helped with overcoming COVID-19:

“Moralized issues can backfire and lead to conflict, which can easily spiral into shaming and condemnation from both sides. Despite their high levels of support for the government’s COVID-19 policies, Danes did not appear to resort to blaming and shaming to keep each other in line. In other words, most people followed the advice of the authorities and didn’t take it upon themselves to police others.”

Shame and blame has been a disaster in addressing obesity. So we are hardly surprised to learn that it causes problems in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

Trust Is Essential

The problem with blame and shame is that it pits people against each other and undermines trust in public health. Divisions and polarization go up as trust goes down. Sound familiar?

Petersen tells us that trust is the essential currency for overcoming a threat to public health:

“The best predictor in Denmark – and elsewhere – of vaccine acceptance is trust in the authorities’ management of the pandemic.

“Denmark is culturally a high-trust country. But so is Sweden and here trust has been lower. What authorities do during the pandemic matters too. If communication is transparent it will uphold trust, even if the message is unpleasant.”

Trust is an essential foundation for health. Blame and shame bring alienation that undermines public health. So we have to earn trust and build it, even (perhaps especially) when it is quite inconvenient.

Click here and here for more on the experience in Denmark. For more on the vital link between science, health, and trust, click here and here.

The Breath Which Leads All Creatures Is Also in the Spheres, lithograph by Odilon Redon / WikiArt

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September 26, 2021