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SLU Researcher Worries Pandemic Will Be Normalized — Unless Social Norms Change

Michael Rozier
Michael Rozier

As an assistant professor of health management and policy at St. Louis University, Michael Rozier is used to thinking a lot about matters of public health — and finding plenty of reasons for hope. His research focuses on the shift toward preventative health care efforts, as well as how ethical and moral rhetoric can advance health care policy. But last week, with COVID-19 case numbers in the U.S. suggesting any end to the pandemic is still a long way off, he took to Twitter to offer some less-than-optimistic predictions.

“Sadly, I'm becoming convinced that #COVID is not far from taking on the characteristics of #gunviolence,” Rozier tweeted. “[The U.S.] will endure much higher, persistent negative effects from something that other countries have solved; we'll normalize it and convince ourselves nothing can be done.” The tweet was off the cuff, but it quickly gained traction online, with both those in agreement and those who found it too pessimistic weighing in.

It was a particularly dark moment for Rozier, who was quick to insist several days later to St. Louis on the Air that there’s still opportunity to ensure America’s response to the coronavirus doesn’t start to mirror its posture toward gun violence.

"We have to maintain hope that this thing is still largely solvable by us," he said. "But it’s not going to happen by magic — it’s going to happen by changing social norms."

On Friday’s show, Rozier joined host Sarah Fenske for a look at how people are — and, in other cases, aren’t — working to do just that. Rozier, who is also a Jesuit priest, discussed what sorts of factors can drive or inhibit behavior change.

He noted that his recent statement on Twitter seemed to resonate with many who saw it.

“People really want to figure out how to live well during this time,” Rozier said. “But the thing is that we can’t live well all by ourselves. We live in a community, in a society, so we depend on each other to live well.”

With COVID-19, several key barriers to significant progress have included access issues, as well as some leaders being unwilling to get on board with new norms.

“Having leaders — whether it be political or religious or business leaders — who fall on the non-mask-wearing side and kind of make it a political point or something like that certainly doesn’t help,” Rozier explained. “And I think it all might be a little exacerbated by media that really thrive on division and discord.”

The bottom line, Rozier said, is that when it comes to new social norms in the age of COVID-19, “the majority of people believe that this is the way we need to proceed,” and the challenge is to build momentum toward greater consensus.

The on-air conversation also included comments from rideshare driver Bob Ell and restaurateur Gerard Craft. Each of them has run into pushback when they asked customers to wear a mask. And as they seek to enforce that norm, they also find themselves doing some explaining of the thinking behind the the request.

“I’ve had a few interactions, mostly over this past weekend,” Ell said, “with passengers who seemed completely oblivious to the existence of COVID-19 and precautions that many of us are taking. … It’s been difficult, especially when there’s someone who doesn’t have a mask with them. In those cases I do have a few extra disposable masks that I keep on hand, but that’s not a long-term solution for me.

“I have lost a few rides, but honestly, I don’t look at it as losing rides. I look at it as, you know, ‘I’m not risking my own personal health to make $20 driving someone from one bar to another.’”

Rozier said that the kind of work members of the service industry are doing on those frontlines of social norms is critical.

“A lot of it does come down to relationship,” he said. “A lot of change happens at that individual level, [for example] an Uber driver kind of explaining why we do this thing for each other, or a restauranteur explaining that, ‘No, this is to keep everybody safe so you actually can enjoy your evening.’

“Because I think ultimately what we’re all kind of longing for, and the people who are resistant to it are longing for, [is] some sense of normalcy. And so what we need to try to collectively do is to figure out how can we do the things — whether it be socializing or going out for a bite to eat or a drink — how can we do those things within this new normal? … Can we start putting our energy into creative solutions for all of this stuff rather than putting our energy into sewing division? Because I ultimately am still hopeful that we can figure all of this out together.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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