I’m currently taking a course called Communicating Science and Bioethics, taught by Dr. Ariana Eily. In our class, we learn how to communicate big science issues with some of science’s staunchest opponents—creationists, anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, among others.
Unfortunately, never has there been a more appropriate time to be enrolled in such a class. COVID-19 has caused widespread cancellations as people are advised to practice social distancing. Usually, the first step in communicating science is one of the more difficult ones: getting people to care. The severity of the situation has accomplished that step for us. The next steps: communicating accurately, in a manner appropriate to the audience, and, most importantly, with empathy.
When we talk about communicating with someone who thinks evolution can’t possibly be true, or someone who believes GMO foods could harm their child, a surefire way to get someone to stop listening is to spout statistics and cite scientific authorities. Instead, as cliché as it may sound, we need to, as one of my classmates articulated, “treat people as people,” whatever their take on a scientific issue, and meet them where they are.
This is incredibly relevant for the Duke community (and the global community at large) right now. Every person is in a different situation with respect to coronavirus and the changes it has made to their daily life and longer-term living situation. What’s unhelpful and could even be counterproductive is painting any of these people with a broad brush based on assumptions that may or may not be accurate.
To the administrators, alumni, fellow students and others who have invoked terms like “selfish” and “millennial” in sharply criticizing students who have returned to campus to get their belongings before dorms close indefinitely or asked that dorms stay open later: consider that some students are international, and urgently need their passports faster than Duke can mail them, or that some students didn’t take enough clothing and basic living items (which Duke does not plan to mail in the near future) for a few months on their week-long spring break trip, and don’t have the financial means to purchase new items in the meantime. Consider that these students are also concerned about the spread of COVID-19 but have had their lives and living situations upended in a matter of days, and have been completely at the mercy of emails from a variety of Duke offices. Consider that in a world full of instability, having access to your items may be the one vestige of normalcy left. Consider that depending on many circumstances outside of a student’s control, they may have nowhere to go and feel helpless, desperate, and abandoned by Duke as an institution.
To students, parents, and others who have criticized Duke’s handling of COVID-19 measures: understand that the same feelings of helplessness you’re dealing with are being felt by administrators who are operating under numerous state and federal governing bodies giving different and (at times) conflicting recommendations and orders. While it is incredibly frustrating for students to make plans for one course of action only to have that entire plan ruined by another Duke email, the same situation is unfolding in boardrooms and behind closed doors for our administrators. Administrators in no way want to inconvenience students or leave them without housing, food, financial support or basic necessities. Obviously, some of these situations are more urgent than others, and of course reaching out is warranted in those situations. But complaints about the speed with which seemingly radical decisions are being made are unproductive when we’re currently in the middle of an unprecedented health situation.
There is a key difference between navigating COVID-19 within the Duke community and speaking with someone who doesn’t believe humans are descended from other primates: we have a common goal. Everyone—from students to faculty to administrators to alumni and everyone else in between—wants to keep the Duke community as safe and healthy as possible in the coming months. Yes, that means practicing social distancing, washing your hands (to the tune of Everytime We Touch), and sharing relevant facts on social media, if that’s your thing. But, if you want someone to listen and not just hear you, that also means “treating people as people.”
So, in the age of COVID-19, before you blast someone for their words or actions, remember to empathize with the Blue Devil who’s behind the horns.
Caroline Petronis is a Trinity junior.
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