How do we encourage people to heed COVID-19 warnings? Nobel economist Esther Duflo on tackling 'disinformation'

8 December 2021

Nobel Laureate Economist Professor Esther Duflo

People from all walks of life will listen to – and act on – clear health advice if it is communicated to them from a trusted source, a Nobel prize winning economist has said.

And groundbreaking research by Professor Esther Duflo and fellow economists during the COVID-19 pandemic also reveals damning facts about the fate of Black Americans as the crisis swept the USA in 2020.

Prof Duflo, who on Tuesday 7 December delivered the CDES 2nd Annual Distinguished Public Lecture, shared her pandemic insights with 399 attendees.

Prof Duflo seeks to understand the economic lives of the poor and aims to help design and evaluate social policies, encompassing health, education, financial inclusion, environment and governance perspectives.

With MIT colleague Abhijit Banerjee, she wrote Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, which won the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award in 2011. It has been translated into more than 17 languages. Most recently she released Good Economics for Hard Times.

In 2019, Prof Duflo was awarded the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (with co-Laureates Abhijit Banerjee and Michael Kremer) in Economic Sciences.

How to reach people with important safety messages

Prof Duflo shared what she and a team of fellow economists learned from several large-scale randomised trials conducted in developing and developed countries, as they sought to understand how to best promote preventative behaviour in a health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We worked from the very beginning of the pandemic to understand how it was possible to communicate to people, to help them understand how the disease works, what it does and how they can protect themselves,” Prof Duflo said.

“We wanted to quickly roll out effective behavioural change, plus (generate) information that was useful to governments.”

A key question they wanted to understand was if people were bombarded with COVID-19-related information and disinformation, did this lead to them, particularly poorer groups, just “tuning out”?

It was decided to test this in the first half of 2020 with an intervention from Abhijit Banerjee in India’s West Bengal.

A video message from a trusted source

Well-known and trusted in the region, the Indian-born economist made a short video urging viewers to report any COVID-19 symptoms, which was sent via SMS to 25 million people in that region.

Prof Duflo said the measures resulted in improved behaviour including a doubling in  reporting of COVID-19 symptoms.

In two other studies carried out in the US, low-income Black, Latino and white Americans were shown videos on ways to avoid contracting COVID-19, read by doctors of diverse backgrounds.

Generally, the intervention improved preventative health knowledge for all surveyed groups regardless of background or which doctor delivered it, the research showed.

The team’s work also dispelled myths about how the pandemic affected racial groups in the US.

Why Black Americans were worse affected

In 2020, Black Americans were 2.8 times more likely to die from COVID-19 and 1.4 times more likely to catch the disease than the general population, Prof Duflo said.

Yet her team’s research showed Black Americans were much more likely to follow good health practices such as wearing masks.

The fact they were worse affected by the pandemic was likely due to factors like living conditions, “the way the Black population is treated in healthcare, plus economic conditions; they are more likely to be frontline workers,” Prof Duflo said.

Prof Duflo’s team also drove Facebook campaigns at Thanksgiving and Christmas 2020, comprising short videos by ethnically-diverse doctors asking people to avoid travel during the holidays.

Prof Duflo said there were noticeable drops in travel in targeted zip codes as a result.

“Facebook users responded to the content and reduced the pandemic, which is quite remarkable,” Prof Duflo said.

“It showed people can listen to this information even when delivered by a diverse group of East Coast doctors.”

“People are affected by simple messages regardless of race or politics, and they seem to be responsive to actionable information delivered by a physician.”

Prof Duflo and her team will soon announce another Facebook campaign targeting US states with low vaccination rates, using similar video content presented by doctors.

The CDES Annual Distinguished Public Lecture invites the world’s most distinguished economic scholars to address compelling development issues. The inaugural address was given by Nobel Laureate Professor Joseph Stiglitz.

CDES Director Prof Asad Islam described Prof Duflo’s work as “very influential, which has led to successful public policy recommendations and transformed the field of development economics.”

“Her COVID-19 research clearly demonstrates the role social scientists can play in addressing the pandemic’s evolving issues, particularly those related to tackling issues such as misinformation, vaccine hesitancy, and promoting preventive health behaviour,” Prof Islam said.

Introducing Prof Duflo, Monash University President and Vice-Chancellor Prof Margaret Gardner said she was pushing frontiers in a much-needed research field.

“Prof Duflo seeks to understand the economic lives of the poor. You cannot be engaged in a more important field because the one thing that’s been with us for centuries is poverty,” Prof Gardner said.

“During COVID-19 and crises small and large, the biggest impacts are on those who are disadvantaged. The thing about poverty is, times are always hard times. If you are poor it is often intergenerational and the hard times stay with you.”

  • Watch a full recording of Prof Duflo’s lecture here.
  • Learn more about Monash Business School’s Centre for Development Economics and Sustainability here.