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UPDATE 1-Like the flu? Trump's coronavirus messaging confuses public, pandemic researchers say

Brad Brooks

pandemic researchers say@ (Updates throughout; Adds White House comment on Trump exposure to person who has tested positive for Covid-19)

March 12 (Reuters) - The coronavirus is not as bad as the seasonal flu. President Donald Trump is not worried about having had direct exposure to the virus. The United States is in far better shape than other countries.

Those are some of the messages from Trump to the American public in recent days

On Monday, when Trump tweeted that the coronavirus was not as perilous as the flu, he said, "So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!" Two days later, Anthony Fauci, head of infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health and a member of Trump's task force on the outbreak, said the coronavirus was far more deadly.

"This is 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu," Fauci said on Wednesday, when was asked by a House of Representatives committee for a fact that would help Americans gauge the danger.

These are textbook examples of contradictory communication during disease outbreaks, according to some researchers into the psychology of pandemics and how leaders can most effectively communicate to keep the public safe during them.

Trump has also said he is not worried about having had a direct exposure to the virus and that the United States is in far better shape than other countries, leading some experts to criticize him for playing down the dangers of the disease and lulling citizens into complacency.

History has shown that leaders trying to manage pandemics without full transparency hamper citizens from acting to help, said Steven Taylor, a psychiatry professor at the University of British Columbia and author of the 2019 book "The Psychology of Pandemics." He maintains that if the public loses the trust of its leaders, people will not listen to them when they offer good advice.

"On the one hand it creates increased anxiety among those who doubt the truth is being told," he said of a leader who has lost the trust of citizens. "And on the other it increases the number of people who think the whole thing is overblown."

Asked about Trump's messaging around the coronavirus, including his public comments, a White House spokesman said:

"While the media wants to spin up fear, this White House is working around the clock to protect all Americans from the coronavirus. As President Trump said this week, we are using the full power of the federal government and the private sector."

Trump is known for his informal style in attempts to, for instance, calm markets amid trade wars. In the past few days, various organizations and individuals in the United States including the president have taken a flurry of steps to try to curb the spread.

Trump restricted travel to the United States from Europe. The National Hockey League suspended its season and the men's college basketball tournament was canceled. Disney theme parks and Broadway theaters closed. Trump, who has been criticized over the pace of testing for the virus, on Friday promised "large scale" testing and declared a national emergency.

Yet across social media and in private conversations, many Americans still doubt the pandemic is that bad. In their social media posts, many link their suspicions that the danger is exaggerated directly to Trump's early downplaying of the illness.

"This is insanity, I think this coronavirus hype is bull," said Rene Rodriguez, doing some late-night grocery shopping in Austin with his wife and infant child.

"The media is hyping this to get at Trump. Nobody can explain why this is more dangerous than the flu. Everybody I work with thinks this is a joke."

Managing a pandemic is one of the toughest tasks for a leader, some experts say, as there is a fine balance between not stoking panic while also speaking truthfully of the dangers.

"I'M NOT CONCERNED"

Trump's address to the nation on Wednesday evening was his most somber public appearance to discuss the pandemic. He imposed the Europe travel curbs, called for unity and asked people to set aside partisan differences.

But for some experts in effective messaging during pandemics, he did not go far enough to plainly lay out to Americans the sacrifices they need to make - such as isolating themselves if they think they have been exposed to the virus.

Indeed, just hours later, Trump again seemed to be relaxed about the risks.

He got word that he had been in direct contact earlier this week with someone who later tested positive for coronavirus - the communications director for Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

Asked if he was worried, Trump told reporters on Thursday: "Let's put it this way I'm not concerned."

On Friday, the president said he would "most likely" be tested "fairly soon", but he denied it was because of his meeting with the Brazilian delegation.

In an emailed statement sent before Trump's comment that he would likely be tested, a White House spokeswoman pointed out that the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say testing is not needed unless a person shows symptoms.

Taylor said past pandemics - such as the SARS outbreak in 2003 - have shown how playing down dangers only helps the virus spread, as people are less vigilant about hygiene, avoiding crowds and getting tested.

"China delayed the announcement of SARS and that delayed the efforts to contain the spread of the infection," he said. "Delays in delivering truths about pandemics result in more cases of infections and more deaths."

'SHAMEFUL' RESPONSE

M.J. Crockett, a neuroscientist and director of the Crockett Lab at Yale University whose work centers on investigating altruism, morality and economic decision-making, has researched behavior in pandemics and the type of messaging that spurs people to make sacrifices for the common good.

Her research has shown that people are far more likely to make sacrifices - such as cancelling trips, increasing awareness about hygiene and going into home quarantine if they think they have been exposed to a virus - if they are clearly told that not doing so could result in someone becoming gravely ill.

Such messaging was not coming from Trump and his Cabinet, she said.

"The response of the American government has been shameful," Crockett said. "There are a lot of mixed messages."

She pointed to Trump stating on March 7 that anybody who wants to get a coronavirus test can get one. In fact, relatively few Americans have been tested, in part because the CDC sent out faulty test kits to states last month.

Fauci, the infectious disease expert, was questioned by the House committee about the lack of testing. He said: "It is a failing. Let's admit it."

While acknowledging flaws in Trump's messaging, some of Trump's senior advisers and other experts praised him for taking certain necessary, but unpopular steps.

For instance, Fauci described Trump's ban on travelers from Europe as a justifiable and "compelling" move because Europe is the new epicenter of the pandemic.

Some health experts had criticized the decision on the grounds that such bans typically are most effective in the early days of an outbreak or if enacted by a country that has not yet seen any cases.

OTHER EXAMPLES

Leaders in some countries harder hit by the coronavirus have made more forceful statements to motivate their citizens to make sacrifices, both Crockett and Taylor said.

Chancellor Angela Merkel told Germans on Wednesday that up to two-thirds of the country's citizens could become infected.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, while his government has been strongly criticized for bungling the response, has stepped up effective communications.

"We realize that these measures will create discomfort, sometimes small, sometimes very large. But this is the moment of self-responsibility," Conte said this week.

In Austin, postal carrier A.J. Graham was stuffing mail into dozens of mailboxes.

"I'm definitely not hearing messages that I need to make sacrifices for the common good," she said. "We've overcome our differences and come together before - just look at America after 9/11," she said, referring to the Sept. 11, 2001 hijacked plane attacks.

"But we need leaders who know how to ask for it." (Reporting by Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas; Editing by Frances Kerry and Daniel Wallis)