Extra Web: Dr. Celine Gounder explains how political divisions have shaped America’s response to COVID

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


Dr. Celine Gounder is senior researcher and public health editor at Kaiser Health News. She served on the Biden-Harris transition’s COVID-19 advisory board.

We reached out to Dr. Gounder to hear his thoughts on why the United States is still so bad at talking about the pandemic.

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


DR. CELINE GOUNDER: I think what had the most detrimental impact was the fact that COVID hit within a year of the presidential election. And we saw something similar happen during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Ebola struck amid presidential elections in some West African countries. In West Africa, there has been the 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 messages and campaign messages were often very intertwined.

GOUNDER: In Guinea, where I worked, there were members of the president’s party or supporters of the president going door to door to people’s homes, saying they were there to educate about Ebola. And they were going to wear these yellow T-shirts with the president’s face on their chest.

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

CHAKRABARTI: OK, so the politicization of COVID has left a lot of people frustrated, regardless of their own politics. Some people felt that COVID was overdone. Others were frustrated that their fellow Americans weren’t following the science. So Dr. Céline Gounder says that to address these beliefs, healthcare providers really need to approach conversations with patients with understanding and empathy. She recalls a conversation with a patient who was skeptical of COVID vaccines.

GOUNDER: A lot of my conversation with her was about what it was like to be an older black woman living in Baltimore during the pandemic. As someone who lived in Baltimore myself, I witnessed first hand some of the issues of race and racism in the city. And so I asked him, what was his experience with the health care system in Baltimore? What had been his professional experience? You know, what was his employer doing to keep employees safe during the pandemic? What was his job like? How has he changed?

Towards the end of a 45 minute conversation, she…asked me: How did you get the vaccine? How was it? How did you decide to get it? And then she thanked me for my time. And then a member of her family, I was put in touch with her by a member of her family, who is a friend of mine, texted me within the hour and said: What have you -you do ? And I said, I don’t know. What did I do?

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

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