We’re living in unprecedented times: Major sports franchises have been suspended. Borders are closing. St. Patrick’s Day festivities are canceled.

In Ireland.

All of this is being done in an effort to “flatten the curve” and slow the spread of COVID-19.

You’ve likely heard the term, and the concept is simple: If individuals limit contact with one another it can reduce the spread of COVID-19 and lessen the risk of a spike in new cases. This buys health care systems time to treat more patients, free up more hospital beds, and work on treatments.

But some people aren’t getting the message.

That was made abundantly clear in this viral tweet from Clearwater Beach, Florida on Monday. It shows a beach packed with people, despite repeated pleas from health care professionals to stay home.

Why aren’t they getting the message?

Despite a government’s best efforts, there will always be a segment of the population who ignores evacuation orders during a natural disaster, shuns the flu vaccine, and laughs in the face of a global pandemic.

Experts attribute it to a form of bias. In a 2015 study on public perception and behaviour during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic in Beijing, researchers Jianhua Xu and Zongchao Peng found individuals make decisions based on their perceived risk. For some, that process may be clouded by “optimistic bias,” in which people view themselves as being at less risk than outside members of the community. 

The study found the perceived risk of infection increased over the course of the emergency and as new cases of H1N1 climbed — but that infers that people’s awareness about the disease also increased.

Literacy can play a big role in whether or not people listen to warnings, which is why it’s important for governments to craft clear, informative, and authoritative messaging in the face of an emergency.

Not taking a clear stance, initially downplaying risks, or peppering warnings with highly-technical jargon can dilute the message and make audiences tune out.

When a pandemic looms, public literacy could be an important way to keep a community safe. A 2019 study on willingness to self-isolate during a pandemic found that people are more likely to heed warnings if they are informed about the risks.

“Extensive publicity in various forms is necessary to help residents better understand the pandemic and raise awareness about early treatment when facing a pandemic risk,” reads an excerpt from the paper.

“Greater understanding of pandemic influenza significantly increases compliance with public health containment measures.”

The Rock Hudson effect

But for some people, literacy alone won’t help. In some cases, people have to see it to believe it. If it isn’t happening in their city, or to someone they know, the disease remains invisible.

One famous example of this is called the ‘Rock Hudson’ effect.

Hudson, an American film icon, cast a global spotlight on the AIDS epidemic when he announced he was suffering from the disease on July 25, 1985.

Until then, many Americans considered AIDS to be a ‘silent’ epidemic, even though it had infected more than 16,000 Americans by the time Hudson’s diagnoses became known.

But Hudson’s death made the disease seem real to millions and sparked immediate shifts in the way the public and government perceived the threat — kickstarting fundraising initiatives and awareness campaigns that simply didn’t exist prior.

Hudson died on October 2, 1985. On that same day, U.S. Congress allocated nearly $190 million for AIDS research, representing an increase of $70 million over the original request.

“His illness and death have moved the fight against AIDS ahead more in three months than anything in the past three years,” Chairman of California’s AIDS Advisory Board Committee Bruce Decker said of Hudson’s death.

Age matters, too

Another problem — and this one may be COVID-19-specific — is age.

Continued messaging that COVID-19 is much more likely to kill people over the age of 80 may be enough to make some healthy individuals venture outside and into crowds, despite the fact that they may make others sick.

Will we see a 2020 version of the Rock Hudson effect?

Recent revelations that popular actors Tom Hanks and Idris Elba have been diagnosed with COVID-19 may help make the virus seem more “real” in some people’s minds.

But for others, it may take a combination of aggressive messaging from trusted officials and witnessing the impacts of the infection first-hand to effectively flatten the curve.