Podcast episode examines information, behavior and the government in COVID-19

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The response to COVID-19 has varied widely from country to country, and even state to state in the U.S. The latest episode of the Democracy Works podcast, produced by the McCourtney Institute for Democracy and WPSU at Penn State, examines some of the reasons why that occurs.

The episode’s guest is Nita Bharti, assistant professor of biology and faculty member in the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics in the Huck Institutes for the Life Sciences. Bharti’s work focuses specifically on human infectious diseases and the interactions between social and biological processes in human health.

Bharti said the key to successful public health campaigns is to create messaging that’s accurate without being panic-inducing and creates a sense of motivation to act without infringing upon individual liberty.

“You can have messaging that suggests something very effective, but people will not comply with it because it's either too extreme, it's too difficult or it flies in the face of their beliefs,” Bharti said. “You need to be able to reach that medium of something being effective, being compassionate to people's needs and beliefs, and being something that will achieve high compliance because effective messaging is not effective if you don't get behavioral changes.”

The differences in response — both from government officials and members of the public — highlight the differences between democracies and authoritarian countries, which can be much more aggressive about ordering people to take certain actions or not in times of crisis.

However, Bharti said those actions could have diminishing returns, and the goal should be to find solutions that balance individual human rights with the broader public good.

“The individual rights and public health push-pull has probably been a part of the conversation for every epidemic we've ever faced," Bharti said. “I think we can be really respectful and ethical and not violate human rights and still find effective solutions for stopping outbreaks.”

Listen to the podcast episode at or by searching “Democracy Works” in Apple Podcasts, Spotify or any podcast app.

Additionally, the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics is taking questions about the Coronavirus pandemic at Each week, experts will answer your most commonly asked questions, anonymously. They will attempt to provide the most current accurate information, informed by scientific evidence.

Last Updated March 23, 2020