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A rapid research response to COVID-19’s effect on communities

With the COVID-19 pandemic upending life as we know it, researchers in West Virginia University’s Eberly College of Arts and Sciences are taking quick action to study how people from Appalachia to Europe are responding to the pressure this crisis has placed on their communities.

Daniel Totzkay, an assistant professor of communication studies, recognizes that the spread of the coronavirus has led to extensive misinformation. While most of the recommendations, like teleworking and avoiding large crowds and public transportation, are appropriate for urban areas, these tactics are less relevant for rural areas.

Daniel Totzkay
Daniel Totzkay

“This study came together just as all of the stay-at-home orders went through, and especially at that time, there seemed to be so much competing information in the news and in our own social networks about what you should or shouldn’t do,” Totzkay said. “That continues today with an oversaturation of information on how serious COVID-19 is, what someone should do about it, how effective things are at protecting you and what is happening within the healthcare system.” 

Supported by a National Science Foundation RAPID award, funding dedicated to quick-response projects supporting severe or urgent situations, he intends to respond to this gap by investigating how rural populations in Appalachia are adapting to this emerging public health crisis.

“At every step of the way, I’ve thought, ‘What does this mean to people not in places like Seattle or New York City?’ So much of the media narrative is, rightfully, on the dire circumstances of these big cities that are hit hard. But especially with the nature of media today, that is the main message that gets broadcasted to everyone,” Totzkay said. “While messages aimed at, say, New Yorkers to stay in their homes and not use the subway probably resonate, what happens when folks in Morgantown or in Braxton County hear those messages and look around them to see a very different situation? The main motivator was understanding and assuming measures like social distancing and limiting contact with public surfaces is important regardless of location but wondering how people in more rural areas are responding.”

Totzkay, an expert in health communications, put together an interdisciplinary team of researchers from WVU to study Appalachia from a wide range of perspectives. These researchers include Shari Steinman ( Psychology), Jamison Conley ( Geography), Megan Dillow (Communication Studies), Alan Goodboy (Communication Studies), Lynne Cossman ( Sociology and Anthropology) and Matthew Jacobsmeier ( Political Science).

Over the next eight weeks, the team will conduct a series of surveys of Appalachian residents to measure their thoughts, feelings and behaviors related to COVID-19 and how they change over time. Their goal is to learn what attributes about people determine their perceptions of crisis recommendations and how they respond.

“It is not at all new to this pandemic that rural or at least less urban areas, and especially Appalachia, are overlooked in the response to a health crisis, so it was important to take this opportunity to give Appalachia the focus it so deserves and to, hopefully, speak to the resilience of this region in their response to the pandemic,” Totzkay said. “I want to make sure that whatever takeaways come from this research directly speak to how the people of this region think and act and will hopefully inform more nuanced action in the future when we inevitably face additional health crises.”

Shaping democracy

Jay Krehbiel
Jay Krehbiel

As political scientist Jay Krehbiel was scanning the news in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, he and his colleagues were struck by the numerous accounts of political leaders pursuing unprecedented, and in some cases, anti-democratic, policies in the name of confronting the crisis. 

“From Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s closing of the country’s courts to the rapid expansion of executive power by Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, we were observing what appeared to us a potential side effect of the virus: the undermining of democratic norms and institutions,” Krehbiel said. 

Also supported by an NSF RAPID award, as well as the Eberly College’s Walter J. and Gail B. Woolwine Faculty Travel Fund, Krehbiel and colleagues Michael Nelson (Pennsylvania State University) and Amanda Driscoll (Florida State University) set out to examine how citizens’ proximity to the crisis undermines their faith in democracy.

“Our goal is to understand how a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic affects citizens’ support for democratic norms like the rule of law,” Krehbiel said. “We hope to learn how the pressing crisis is already changing their attitudes and how its effect evolves as the pandemic progresses.” 

During the next several months, the research team is surveying citizens from the U.S., United Kingdom, Germany and Spain.  

“We’ve already seen leaders in many countries take steps that in normal times would have been seen as illegal and undemocratic, with some observers going so far as to declare the virus as a direct threat to democracy as we know it,” Krehbiel said. “But if we want to more fully understand the extent of the threat COVID-19 poses to democracy, we need to assess whether, and if so why, citizens themselves are responding to the crisis in ways that create opportunities for those threats to democracy to be realized.”

Combating the spread of disinformation

Erik Herron
Erik Herron

Political scientist Erik Herron is continuing research from his August 2019 Minerva Award, which focused on how Russia creates and exploits vulnerabilities in its neighbors. 

“Our main focus has been civilian services, like healthcare. The COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges for health providers worldwide and has also created an opening for disinformation to proliferate,” said Herron, the Eberly Family Professor of Political Science. “It's important to understand how the crisis is being exploited to better respond now and prepare for crises in the future.”

The new project, supported by the U.S. Department of Defense and Walter J. and Gail B. Woolwine Faculty Travel Fund, seeks to uncover how the Russian government is using the COVID-19 pandemic to spread disinformation in its neighboring countries.

“We hope to better understand how the pandemic is affecting citizens' perceptions of their country's capacity to provide essential services and how disinformation distorts their perceptions,” Herron said. 

Later this month, Herron and his team from the Minerva Research Initiative will survey citizens from Ukraine, Estonia and Georgia to assess how disinformation affects their attitudes and behaviors. 

“It is critical to learn about how this crisis is being exploited in real-time,” Herron said. “It can not only help mitigate problems of disinformation right now, but it can help build defenses against future disinformation efforts.”

While the Woolwine Fund typically supports faculty travel for international research, the family – including Gail Woolwine (BA Political Science ’69) and Jim Woolwine (BA Political Science ’68, MPA ’70) – is committed to ensuring these time-sensitive projects can be fulfilled even while travel is impossible.

"Gail and I are pleased to support research and scholarship in the international arena, as we hope the knowledge that is gained will enhance the learning experience for WVU students," Jim Woolwine said. "The world is now a very small place, and, as we see from the fallout from the COVID-19 virus, global networks and international cooperation are both critical and essential."