We need leaders who can channel the intrinsic motivation Americans have to help those around them

In the hospital, hand washing is critical. Studies have repeatedly shown that handwashing reduces hospital-acquired-infections with impressive magnitude. But how do you motivate hospital workers to wash their hands? In a study, professors Adam Grant and David Hoffman demonstrated that the phrase “Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases,” increased handwashing over the alternate phrase, “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases.” An appeal to altruism was more effective than an appeal to self-interest.

As medical students, we have been astounded to witness the daily selflessness demonstrated by members of the health care community during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are countless examples of frontline providers risking their lives and quarantining from their families out of duty to their patients. Researchers across the globe have repurposed their work to understand SARS-CoV2. In the early days of the pandemic, medical students from across the country rapidly deployed in initiatives to make PPE meet the national shortage.

Even beyond health care, there have been remarkable examples of small businesses and community members marshaling their resources to address the pandemic: from alcohol distributors making hand sanitizer to automakers contributing to ventilator manufacturing. These tremendous efforts across various industries in the country demonstrate the power of the desire to contribute to a bigger cause.

However, a critical area in which the United States has failed throughout the pandemic is mask-wearing. Despite the evidence that masks can decrease the transmission and possibly even the severity of COVID-19, mask-wearing has not flourished to the degree needed during the pandemic. Today, 16 states still do not have mask mandates. The influential Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation model predicts that near-universal mask use could reduce additional fatalities by more than 50 percent in the coming months amidst concerns of another surge in cases during the winter.

In truth, wearing a mask is itself a selfless act: Masks primarily shield those around the wearer rather than protecting the wearer herself. However, this message has not been effectively conveyed by a president who early on framed mask-wearing as an individual choice and, in the past few weeks, has held multiple rallies for his campaign in which mask-wearing has not been observed. This brand of leadership has, unfortunately, led to a partisan gap in attitudes towards mask-wearing. Given the simplicity, accessibility, and inexpensive nature of mask-wearing, it is unfortunate that we have not been able to achieve widespread adoption. Not only has our president failed to emphasize the science supporting mask-wearing, but he has also failed to consider the power of appealing to Americans’ concern for their neighbors.

In stark contrast, Joe Biden has consciously modeled mask-wearing and social distancing while arguing that mask-wearing is about protecting each other. It is this spirit that is demanded from our leadership in the face of the pandemic. We need leaders that can channel the intrinsic motivation Americans possess to help those around them. It is not just that mask-wearing is the decent thing to do. It is the way to defeat the virus.

Anjali Bhatla and Vivek Nimgaonkar are medical students.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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