At the early stages of the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic in the United States, stories dominated the media about nurses and doctors and health care workers turned whistleblower to complain about a lack of protective gear and other equipment, some of them slapped down by hospital administrators.
That’s exactly the wrong approach to ensure calm in a populace as thirsty for information and advice on how to prevent catching the virus, said Nicholas Christakis, a physician and professor who directs the Human Nature Lab at Yale.
“When the pandemic began, I never imagined that two topics I have an intellectual or philosophical interest in – processes of contagion and issues of free expression – would overlap in the United States,” he told writer Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic magazine.
It’s a critical intersection in American – and world – society as businesses who run medical facilities want to prevent bad publicity, especially of the kind involving people dying, and they’re even clamping down on medical professionals on the front-line who are risking their own lives.
Hospitals and medical facilities have reacted aggressively in some cases, threatening people with reprisals including being disciplined or fired for speaking the truth, adding to the atmosphere wrought by President Donald Trump to try to muzzle any news he doesn’t like.
The magazine noted that NYU’s Langone Medical Center sent a written warning to its health care workers to stay mum, claiming it was in line with a policy not to disseminate information about patients or staff.
“Because information related to coronavirus is constantly evolving, it is in the best interest of our staff and the institution that only those with the most updated information are permitted to address these issues with the media,” the statement said. “We have a responsibility to the public at large to ensure that the information they receive from our institution is accurate.”
That’s so much B.S. with yesterday’s chicken spread on it for Christakis, who called out hospitals and medical facilities for going after the very people they depend on to save lives and the reputations of those businesses.
He knows whereof he speaks, having studied contagions for 15 years, including the H1NI flu, with one study looking into what happens when a biological contagion unfolds alongside a behavioral shift, or a so-called social contagion, such as wearing masks.
“I realize there’s a world of a difference between speech suppression by the Chinese Communist Party or a government entity. But it’s just not a good look for hospitals – and especially for academic medical centers, for which many of the doctors and nurses are on the faculty, and which have a commitment to free expression – to be disciplining their doctors and nurses in the middle of a pandemic,” he said.
What makes it counterproductive, he said, is how it saps the morale of people already worn out and now thinking their bosses don’t have their backs and aren’t willing to give them the equipment they need or squeeze governments to help provide it.
“It is absurd that administrators are spending time surveilling the social-media posts of their personnel rather than trying to actually fix the problem by addressing inefficiencies in their hospital…we are not going to kill this germ with censorship!” he exclaimed.
“The idea that we can hide from inconvenient truths or close our eyes and pretend that the situation is not the way it is by clamping down on people who are speaking is a kind of idiocy of the highest order,” he said, not trying to hide his contempt.
Asked whether there was any compelling reason to restrict information, he was quick on the draw.
“People will say they’re trying to tamp down on panic or to provide a consistent message to a confused public. But if anything, in my view, the ham-fisted way this is being done is going to contribute to public disbelief in experts,” he said.
As to the notion that a doctor or nurse or hospital worker could put out false or dangerous information, he said that, “the way we gain credibility and show our expertise is by forthrightly addressing false information or taking ownership when uncomfortable true information is released.”
It wasn’t mentioned but the model he was talking about was practiced in Greece, where Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis appointed University of Athens professor and infectious disease expert Dr. Sotiris Tsiodras to give accurate, sober daily updates, including the bad news, gaining credibility.
“I don’t accept that we are better off silencing people saying things that we don’t agree with. I totally, fundamentally reject that,” he said.
If a hospital is worried about wrong information spreading he said the way to dispel that is to take it head-on, admitting when there are equipment shortages a nurse may have reported, and then explaining what’s being done about it.
“It provides the public with confidence that the people leading them or who are responsible for their lives are telling the truth. Whereas if you try to suppress it, I'm thinking, ‘what else is the hospital hiding that they don’t want me to know? Why should I trust anything they say?’ he said in a caution to those businesses.
“So what I am saying is that I am not familiar with a case where the flow of information has been shut down in ways that have been beneficial even when we are sorely tempted to shut some people up,” he said.