What New York Did Right to Tame Covid-19

by Fernando Perfas

| Photo courtesy of news.immitate.com

On a mild Spring morning of March 2nd, 2020, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York held the first of his daily Covid-19 briefing. For the first time, the fatal virus made its ominous presence felt from an Iranian woman who tested positive after returning from Iran. She was the first known case followed by a man who, after returning from Italy, triggered a cluster of infections in New Rochelle of Westchester County, just outside of New York City. This is the early beginning of what became a nightmarish three months of the Covid infection spreading like wildfires in the boroughs of New York and the nearby counties in Long Island and Westchester and the rest of the state. New York State became the first Covid hotspot in the country. All told the number of infections so far is a staggering 434,000 and counting, and total deaths as of this writing is 32,464 in New York State.

“How did New Yorkers scale the Covid mountain, flatten the curve, bring the cases down, and reach the other side of the mountain with minimal resistance to the intrusive lockdown and health mandates? Soon after, Gov. Cuomo issued several executive orders further tightening the grip on the social life of the denizens of the state during the height of the New York State health emergency for just about a hundred days.”

In the last two months, New York has an average daily infection rate of about one per cent, and the daily number of deaths has remained in the single digit. This does not mean the virus is gone, it is very much around but all the metrics indicate that the situation is stable. New Yorkers’ public behavior is still very much guided by the trinity of a wearing mask, washing hands, and social distancing. The road to reopening the economy has been a deliberate process guided by science. How did New Yorkers scale the Covid mountain, flatten the curve, bring the cases down, and reach the other side of the mountain with minimal resistance to the intrusive lockdown and health mandates? Soon after, Gov. Cuomo issued several executive orders further tightening the grip on the social life of the denizens of the state during the height of the New York State health emergency for just about a hundred days.

Recently, in one of his news conferences, the Governor was asked why New York did not experience the kinds of resistance other states are going through. He pretty much gave credit to New Yorkers’ responsiveness to what were asked of them. He added that he stayed on top of the situation through his daily briefing, seven days a week providing vital information about the virus from health experts that were advising him, to New Yorkers who were hungry for information and seeking solace from the mounting anxiety caused by the looming uncertainty. He marveled at the connection he established with his viewers, not only in New York but from other parts of the country and beyond. There was a sense of community established in the process and provided hope to the people anxious to hear some good news.

” .. .Gov. Cuomo tapped on a proven principle of behavior change and healing. The ability to create a feeling of community with a common purpose and inviting others with similar concerns to buy-in to a cause, has been used by religious leaders, politicians, community organizers, revolutionaries, etc. since time immemorial.”

Unknowingly, Gov. Cuomo tapped on a proven principle of behavior change and healing. The ability to create a feeling of community with a common purpose and inviting others with similar concerns to buy-in to a cause, has been used by religious leaders, politicians, community organizers, revolutionaries, etc. since time immemorial. A crisis such as this pandemic, has far-reaching effects beyond the threat to personal well-being and involves potential threats to the life of others by the action of the individual.

The expression “we are all in this together” cannot be any truer. When the steps to be taken to control the situation require some amount of self-sacrifice and giving up personal freedom, they are likely to meet steep resistance from the public. The psychologist Jack W. Brehm aptly described this behavior as “psychological reactance.” He believed that when an individual is curtailed from exercising what he considers to be his personal choice or freedom he is likely to become defiant. To counter reactance, the subject must be encouraged to buy-in to the reason for curtailing his choices to further his interests and that of others.

Gov. Cuomo’s feat to try to unite New Yorkers across the social and political divide into believers hinged in inspiring a sense of community and harnessing it to overcome public resistance to the health guidelines and mobilizing the public towards a common purpose …”

The politization of the health guidelines designed to control the pandemic has imposed an added challenge for it provided a convenient excuse for some to defy the state mandate. Gov. Cuomo’s daily briefing, which consisted of helpful information and facts (devoid of partisan politics) and delivered with empathy for those who have lost loved ones, gave hope. It began to morph into a kind of virtual community among the viewers in New York and beyond. His consistency in providing factual and reassuring messages, enlivened with personal anecdotes, earned him the trust of the viewers. His briefing evolved into a daily morning meeting for his regular viewers, complete with information updates, directives, admonitions to non-compliant, question and answers, and slogans. He unfailingly reinforced the three cardinal rules of wearing a mask, washing hands, and social distancing.

Gov. Cuomo’s feat to try to unite New Yorkers across the social and political divide into believers hinged in inspiring a sense of community and harnessing it to overcome public resistance to the health guidelines and mobilizing the public towards a common purpose of flattening the infection curve and eventually bringing the Covid cases to manageable levels.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR Dr. Fernando B. Perfas is an addiction specialist who has written several books and articles on the subject. He currently provides training and consulting services to various government and non-government drug treatment agencies regarding drug treatment and prevention approaches. He can be reached at fbperfas@gmail.com.

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