It’s been a little over a year since the first intonations of the COVID-19 pandemic began affecting and, in many cases, severely altering American lifestyles.

Even though the light at the end of the tunnel is in view with the uptick in vaccinations and steps towards a return to “normal,” how has the “new normal” affected us?

It’s a question William Stern, Ph.D., assistant professor with Cameron University’s Department of Psychology, took the time to evaluate and discuss with The Constitution.

The stress from the pandemic has affected Americans and has played a large role in people’s behaviors, Stern said. Following a hot year, both with the pandemic and politically, cracks in societal norms have risen to the surface. Be it through the sharing of misinformation to a distrust in authority figures and experts, rifts have grown visibly within our society.

“There has been a difficult balance between keeping people safe from the virus while being conscious of the consequences isolation and other measures can have on an individual’s mental health,” he said. “We’ve seen many people, likely fed up with the stress of adhering to recommendations from public health experts, choosing to engage in risky behaviors.”

Stern noted the human tendency to rationalize or justify these behaviors by believing the coronavirus isn’t that dangerous. Unless touched personally through tragedy, it offers a subconscious comfort for people who are scared, even if only subconsciously. Some can use it as an emotional security blanket of sorts.

“Often, these decisions are rationalized or justified by the virus not being that dangerous,” he said. “Humans excel at justifying their own actions, even when those actions may conflict with their beliefs or the advice of experts.”

Stern said the misinformation and distrust in experts is a growing issue in the United States. People locked into their online worlds often end up in their own information bubbles. It can lead to a continuous cycle of falsehoods peddled as facts that end up perpetuating a vacuum of factual information. It’s a form of “feeding the beast.”

“We’ve seen a huge rise in micro-targeted misinformation recently, where a person’s social media posts and likes can be used in order to present them with misleading or fabricated stories that are particularly likely to get them riled up,” he said. “This has been exacerbated by conflicting messages from political leaders and even trusted experts.”

This is where the polarized world of American politics can lead to a skewed viewpoint depending on your already established point of view. Stern said it’s a place where political leanings can cloud the quest for facts over feelings.

“The Trump and Biden administrations, for instance, have emphasized very different things in the response to COVID, and it is difficult for people not to look at the guidance they offer through the lens of their own political beliefs,” he said. “Even organizations and experts who are largely considered trustworthy, such as the CDC and Dr. Anthony Fauci, have sometimes come off as giving conflicting advice.”

Stern cited the pandemic’s beginnings when people were first advised to not wear masks. The why often was lost in the shuffle.

“Of course, in the beginning of the pandemic, masks were in short supply and being reserved for frontline workers,” he said. “Over time, supply increased and new information about their effectiveness came to light. However, this information wasn’t communicated well, and while people recognize the conflicting advice over time, they don’t recognize the reasoning behind it. This can create a perception of hypocrisy or political motivation, which increases distrust.”

The nation’s ideological split politically has become part of the fabric for how people view the pandemic and its affect, Stern said. It has become part of the health crisis. He cited polling that consistently shows that, while liberals are more worried about them or someone they know contracting the virus, conservatives are more worried about the potential economic impacts of the virus. Political leaders bear a share of responsibility for the onus with this split.

“There is a very clear ideological split in both fear of the virus and vaccine hesitancy,” he said. “Both fears are valid, but it is interesting how much of a divide there is by political ideology and how much that divide is reflected in the rhetoric of liberal and conservative leaders.”

Tension, polarization and partisanship are undoubtedly on the rise, according to Stern. But the idea this will only continue can be short-sighted. There is hope.

“There have been many periods of polarization followed by times of cooperation in our history,” he said. “While we may be alarmed by things such as what we saw at the Capitol on Jan. 6th, the optimistic among us could be heartened by the reaction to those events. We saw political leaders from across the spectrum calling for civility, cooperation, and open discourse.”

“We can only hope that they continue to be committed to pursuing those goals as time goes forward,” he concluded.

It’s up to individuals to listen and keep open minds. It’s important to remember civility. Stern reminded that it’s “perfectly fine to disagree with someone you care about.” Remember to be conscious of your language and avoid depicting those you disagree with as “evil” or “enemies,” he said.

“Studies have shown that people have positive views of those who seek out and listen to opposing viewpoints, regardless of political ideology,” he said. “Try to be that person as much as you can and be willing to change your mind.”

Through all this, Stern said Lawton is somewhat unique to the rest of the country. But we are still subject to the same forces as other Americans. He believes the military presence may have helped us maintain some discipline in adhering to public safety measures. Our geographic location may have also helped in dealing with the pandemic, he said.

This information, coupled with the size of the community, shows even the political divide isn’t as wide as elsewhere, according to Stern. Because the city’s not “so big that we think of our neighbors as nameless and faceless strangers,” there is “community” here.

“People still maintain a culture of respect and manners with each other that is less commonly found in highly urban areas,” he said. “That can certainly play to our advantage, as it might help us be more willing to hear one another out.”

In the end it’s about communication between people, Stern said. We are all in this together.

Written by Scott Rains: scott.rains@swoknews.com.

Written by Scott Rains: scott.rains@swoknews.com.

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