Public Health, Pandemic & Protest Narrative Battles

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

We are in a public health narrative imagination battle. We are winning on the narrative of reframing racism as a public health crisis. But we are losing the COVID mask-wearing and social distancing battle. We should have a narrative based on science, with a "let's all do our part to protect us all" attitude. Instead, the winning narrative is, "wearing a mask strips away freedom."

So what is a narrative? 

A narrative is a common way of understanding or seeing something. Every narrative is made up of stories. When you have enough stories reiterating the same message, it becomes a narrative. 

But the narrative is only the tip of the iceberg. Underneath the narrative is social movements, think-tanks, media machines—researching, dissecting, and generating narratives. 

Narratives are power.

Narratives shape culture, decisions, policies, and actions. 

For example, we moved from a dominant narrative in the 90s of "tough on crime" to now "defund the police."

This invisible narrative shift was being shaped by activists, researchers, artists, and protestors—the Black Lives Matter Movement, Michelle Alexander's New Jim Crow, Ava DuVernay's films, Ta-Nehisi Coates writing, and many more. 

Six years ago, when I first started participating in BLM protests in Oakland, it was mostly young folks and people of color. When working on SPARCC four years ago, my team had to work hard to make "racial equity" platable to our organizations and funders.

Today vocalizing support for ending anti-black racism is the default. We still have a long way to go, but the narrative has shifted—with that, so will policies and people's actions. At the Public Health Alliance of Southern California, we help health departments embed racial equity. Our job got easier when San Bernardino County declared racism a public health crisis, and San Diego created an Office of Equity this past week.

While celebrating these wins, we've also felt defeated on the COVID response. The Orange County Health Officer resigned after death threats and protests at her home. Her crime?—requiring a face-covering. Her replacement immediately overturned the order. When California declared a statewide mask order, it was too late. Cases are surging. It's not accidental that the counties leading the growth in California are all conservative counties, which pushed fast for reopening and resisted mask-wearing—Orange, Ventura, Riverside, and San Bernardino County.

The question I'm trying to unpack right now is: what led up to this moment where the anti-racism narrative is winning, but the mask-wearing narrative is losing? 

I spent the past week researching this topic, and it's turning into a Ph.D. dissertation. I've been looking into decades of social movements, Supreme Court cases, decades of right-wing think-tank production, and left-wing media funding mechanisms. I have no conclusions. I just have more questions. 

If anyone wants to send any relevant resources or have a discussion on this topic, I'd love to dive deeper.