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Why Personal Stories Matter So Much When We Talk About COVID-19

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My name is Sammy, I’m 31 years old, and I have acute asthma. By acute, I mean, I use my inhaler so infrequently I couldn’t even tell you where it is right now. That part is important for you to know though because for that reason alone, some people would be indifferent if I die.

This morning, I woke up at 4:30 a.m., as I have been for weeks now without any real rhyme or reason. According to my friends and family, this is something a lot of people are currently experiencing, but this morning I felt inclined to share the thoughts that were keeping me awake.

I want to talk about the importance of sharing real accounts right now over numbers and memes. The numbers of people who have become ill and died from COVID-19 are valuable and very important. However, those who understand this already grasp the danger of this virus. Numbers give some other people the opportunity to determine whether or not it is a “justifiable” amount of deaths for them to worry, or even write it off as being too low of a threat to themselves. Furthermore, numbers are dehumanizing. There’s a difference between saying, “this virus has killed 3000 people in our city this month” and saying “this virus killed my child, and I could not be there for them when it happened, and I also can’t be there to lay them to rest.”

The news is sharing statements from protestors saying things like, “This virus is only affecting a small percentage of people,” “It’s only affecting people with preexisting conditions,” and “It’s sad for the people that are affected by this, but the economy collapsing is going to be worse for all of us.” When this is all over, the loss of human life caused by this virus will have affected all of us on a personal level. As someone who has nursed my 25-year old husband through stage 4 pancreatic cancer, I can tell you that when someone you love is on the brink of death, you could give fuck-all about the economy. We all have or had someone in our lives who would make us feel this way if they died needlessly, young or old.

Currently, I work in communications for a nonprofit, and as such, I’m privy to the fact that stories are what connect people and drive the action. For those of you who are driven by science and data, I encourage you to read Brian Boyd’s book, “On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction,” which provides brilliant insight on the power of this tool.

We are in an eddy between two tides of persuasive influence, one of which is authentic influencing — being able to persuade consumers, donors, or the general public by sharing information via a person or brand they respect or perceive to be authentic. The other is facts and data, and the reality is that a much smaller percentage of people can process that information. History has shown us time and time again that in chaos, people tend to find comfort in scapegoats and conspiracies.

By sharing personal accounts of people’s experiences with this virus, you’re slowly eliminating the opportunity for others to dehumanize people with preexisting conditions and others in their argument. When people affected by this virus share their personal accounts of what happened, they are creating imagery and messages that stick. Think about how much easier it is for most people to recall the story of something that has happened in history over the date it happened. Stories stick. Numbers don’t.

Of course, stories won’t penetrate everyone’s psyche. Courtesy of the concept of “fake news,” there will still be people who will claim for a while that all of these people are actors. Some of them even believe nurses are “fake nurses.” Unfortunately, like most things, some people just can’t find compassion for something until it truly personally affects them.

That said, I can tell you from experience that I have successfully managed to help persuade thousands of people to connect with homelessness and pancreatic cancer when it does not personally affect them. I’ve been behind the scenes of fundraisers that drove communities to raise millions of dollars to support families they had never met in their lives. How? Personal stories.

The data is there for those of us who are ready to see it. Until then, I believe we need to continue to flood the internet with real accounts of what is happening. We need to honor families who are affected by this, and we need to stop allowing them to be dismissed as numbers. I urge you to consider sharing someone’s personal account of this event before you share a meme that attacks someone’s political beliefs. In the face of a global disaster, we can achieve much more if we pause, take a breath and respond genuinely.

For more on the coronavirus, check out the following stories from our community:

Getty image by Prostock-Studio.

Originally published: April 29, 2020
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