Heidi Tworek and Ian Beacock offer up four suggestions. Heidi Tworek is an associate professor of history and public policy at the University of British Columbia. Ian Beacock is a post-doctoral fellow at UBC’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs.
Dr. David Williams angrily blamed citizens for not following Ontario’s COVID-19 guidelines. “What don’t you understand about our messaging?” he wondered. “The message is so clear, it’s obvious.”
But it’s not your fault if you can’t understand Ontario’s COVID-19 rules. Poor communications have been a hallmark of Ontario’s response from the start. We just published a study on the public health messaging of nine democracies worldwide, and it’s not your imagination: Ontario’s measures have been more confusing than elsewhere.
Communications are a critical tool for any pandemic response. They’re what epidemiologists call a non-pharmaceutical intervention: a measure that isn’t a drug that can help control an infectious disease. Ineffective messaging, then, is a major blunder. When rules are unclear or change often, citizens break them without realizing and grow frustrated with inconsistencies.
It’s clear that Ontario needs to reboot its COVID-19 communications strategy. Learning from other countries, from Senegal to South Korea, could help. Here are four immediate changes the province could make. Adopting these suggestions could save lives, restore public trust and help flatten the curve once more.
Ontarians have been hearing from too many public officials on COVID-19. A recent briefing saw the premier, health minister, chief medical officer of health, and chief coroner all trying to explain
new guidelines. In major cities such as Toronto and Ottawa, mayors have also emerged as prominent voices. Places with the finest COVID-19 responses, however, such as New Zealand, have elevated a small number of communicators (usually one health official and one politician) to share scientific data and articulate civic values. This limits confusion and makes it easier to build
trust. Ontario should give the podium to one or two highly effective messengers. Other officials should step back.
Be more emotional
Clear scientific information is essential, but memorizing facts and numbers won’t flatten the curve. The best health communications also speak to the hearts of citizens. Senegal has used personal
stories from patients and family members to clarify the stakes. In British Columbia, Dr. Bonnie Henry has repeatedly asked citizens to “be kind, be calm, be safe.” Taiwan has called physical distancing an act of love. Explicitly calling for kindness or compassion is valuable, but it also helps to have officials who can themselves express a range of emotions. New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern has used online video-streaming to empathize with the public. Ontario needs pandemic messaging with emotional intelligence.