How to Handle Disagreements About COVID-19

Advice on respecting others' feelings during uncertain times
Pandemic Deniers

After months and months of coping with COVID-19, most of us have found unique ways to continue to live life while staying safe.

However, a growing number of people have let down their guard and are engaging in risky activities — going to crowded bars or throwing indoor parties without masking and social distancing, for instance. We also see many examples of people refusing to wear masks in enclosed public places like restaurants and stores, and claiming that COVID-19 is a hoax or that it’s no longer a threat.

Unfortunately, these behaviors have fueled a resurgence in COVID-19 cases, and deaths, nationwide. Diverging behaviors and beliefs about the pandemic are also creating often-serious rifts among family members, friends and co-workers.

Here, Navtej Sandhu, MD, emergency medicine physician at Rush Oak Park Hospital, and Sharon Jedel, PsyD, clinical psychologist at Rush University Medical Center, provide facts about the impact of COVID-19 and discuss ways to maintain relationships with loved ones who believe — or are behaving as if — the pandemic is over.

Significance of COVID-19

Although the novel coronavirus first appeared months ago, it is by no means weakening. In fact, the opposite is true.

“We’re seeing over 150,000 new cases every day in the United States, which is much higher than when the pandemic first started,” Sandhu says. “So the virus has definitely not gone away, and it’s important to continue adhering to guidelines.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) emphasizes three guidelines to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19: proper hand hygiene, practicing social distancing and wearing a mask in public. And Sandhu notes that the most impactful of these recommendations is wearing a mask if you do venture out.

“I know that wearing a mask has become a bit of a debate, but in terms of being protective, it’s the most important thing that you can do while in public,” Sandhu says. “Not only do masks help prevent the spread from you to other people, they also help protect you from getting COVID-19.”

Not only do masks help prevent the spread from you to other people, they also help protect you from getting COVID-19.

Research shows that multilayered cloth masks block the respiratory droplets we produce, which carry COVID-19, by upwards of 80%. And new findings by the CDC reveal that cloth masks can also "reduce wearers' exposure to infectious droplets" by filtering fine particles exhaled by others.  

It’s important not just to wear a mask, but to wear it properly. “It needs to be completely covering your nose and mouth to be effective,” Sandhu says. “This is key because there are a lot of asymptomatic carriers — those who are not aware they have the virus and are spreading it, ultimately affecting the safety of others.”

Emotional safety in a pandemic

During a public health crisis such as COVID-19, it’s crucial to feel safe. Yet one of the many challenges during a pandemic is how differently people experience personal safety and emotional security.

Jedel says that people who are cautious about the virus are concerned about the health and well-being of their loved ones. She adds that by now most people have been directly impacted by COVID-19 — whether physically, emotionally, socially or financially — which can result in stronger feelings about the pandemic.

Research shows that COVID-19 has caused an increase in anxiety, depression, stress and sleep disturbance. One reason is the toll the virus is taking on our lives — including increased isolation, unemployment, monetary concerns, challenges with home schooling or working from home, and a general sense of uncertainty about the future.

“It can be very frightening and confusing if you think that your loved one is not taking appropriate precautions and participating in risky behavior,” Jedel says. “On the other hand, some people feel that their loved one is overreacting and being too cautious. This, too, can contribute to feelings of anger and confusion, so it’s important to respect each other’s beliefs.”

‘Put yourself in your loved one’s shoes’

The pandemic has different meanings to each of us, and we’re all willing to take different risks, so it can be hard to handle loved ones who have a difference of opinion regarding COVID-19. To help you navigate these situations, Jedel recommends the following:

  • Discuss, don’t judge. Maintain an empathetic and nonjudgmental attitude in conversations when opinions about the virus vary. “The goal of the discussion should not be to change the other person’s position. That will likely escalate tensions and create additional conflict,” she says. “Instead, try putting yourself in your loved one’s shoes and understanding where they are coming from, why they feel the way they do.”
  • Correct inaccurate information. If your loved one bases their opinions or actions on inaccurate information, educating them on the facts about COVID-19 can help to reduce the spread of the many falsehoods surrounding the pandemic. “If you feel that your loved one is open to hearing new or contrary information regarding COVID-19,” Jedel says, “then sharing such information in a straightforward manner without judgment or accusations can be beneficial.”
  • Set boundaries. If conversations about the pandemic have repeatedly escalated into arguments, it’s best to create boundaries with your loved one. Agree to disagree, and don’t discuss it.
  • Postpone in-person gatherings. Refrain from getting together if you are not comfortable with the level of safety precautions your loved one is engaging in — whether you think they are taking too many or not enough. “Let your loved one know that you respect their choices, but that you do not feel comfortable getting together and that you hope they will understand,” she says. “Also, emphasize how important the relationship is to you and how much you look forward to seeing them when it’s possible to do so.” Many cities and states are now issuing stay-at-home orders and discouraging large gatherings; but even one-on-one visits should be off the table if you can't agree on the terms.

COVID-19 will continue to challenge us physically, emotionally and mentally in the months ahead. To preserve our relationships as well as our health and well-being, it’s important to acknowledge the impact the virus has had on each of us. That includes people who have not yet been impacted and, as a result, may not see the pandemic as a threat.

Or, as Sandhu explains: “We need to be in this mindset of taking the necessary steps to protect and respect ourselves, our families and communities as a whole — body and mind.”

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