“Pandemics are a magnifying glass that sheds light on social conditions,” says May-Brith Ohman Nielsen, professor of history at the University of Agder in Norway.
Pandemics lay bare the failures of a country’s organization and
capacity that went unnoticed during uneventful times. Conflicting
policies, staff vacancies, purchase orders for the wrong items, a lack
of required items, poor communication, health inequalities, and all the
other normal foul-ups in organizations are just another day at the
In a pandemic, these sorts of common foul-ups cost lives. Minute errors snowball.
Even though we’ve had half a dozen pandemics or epidemics in living
memory, we still made poor decisions that made the current COVID-19
In the U.S., state governments have been sidetracked from their main
priority of safeguarding people’s lives. Governments, hospitals,
prisons, old-age homes, businesses and many others saved a few dollars
on just-in-time delivery, but should have stockpiled necessary supplies.
Competition in the marketplace can be healthy. But competition in
this pandemic led to chaotic bidding wars and panic buying for essential
health-care supplies among North American governments. At the same
time, United States exports of life-saving equipment continued until
Governments and health-care experts have been caught flat-footed by
an event they knew was bound to happen. They knew millions of lives were
The American focus since 9/11 has been on terrorism. There was little focus on more likely risks such as severe weather and infectious diseases. One recent study showed that the vast majority of budgets in the U.S. earmarked for bio-defence against viruses and other biological agents were diverted to other activities. The 500,000 procurement officers in America, some of whom take part in emergency response meetings, obviously didn’t procure the right items.
There was little collaboration among governments, health-care
providers and others. Communication failures were abundant. Now the
public is wondering why they were told it takes a year and a half to
test and market a vaccine, but others are predicting one in just three
We’re experiencing a convergence of confusion – politics, scientific jargon, media and business.
Frequent updating of facts pertaining to the pandemic led to many
contradictions. After hearing there’s no evidence that a pet can
transmit the virus, we then heard that a pet can. Incubation periods are
said to be up to 14 days, except in reported cases where they’re
longer. Masks were initially not recommended and even discouraged
because they were thought to be not protective, and possibly even risky
for the general user. But that messaging was quickly reversed, with good
reason, so that masks were eventually recommended and then mandated.
Contradictory recommendations also saturated the public. Public
health experts begged people to keep social distances to reduce the risk
of contracting the contagion and formed serious shelter-in-place
orders. Not long after, many public health professionals encouraged and
promoted political protests that led to enormous mass gatherings in the
U.S. It’s understandable that the general public was confused and even
angry at the paradoxical messages.
The shelter-in-place orders were justified to flatten the curve, a
term and campaign that was probably bewildering to people not used to
statistics or graphs.
How can we flatten an existing curve?
We’d have to go back in time. Once a curve has been flattened, it’s a straight line – it can’t be both.
How are we citizens supposed to flatten a curve when that seems to be
the job of people in the health-care field and government? And why does
it require shutting down businesses and schools and jeopardizing
livelihoods, which comes with its own health risks?
Instead, officials needed to get a clear message across to citizens to take precautions in order to avoid overloading hospitals.
We’ve had conflicting advice and poor decisions. Fresh air and
sunshine were the natural disinfectants used in the treatment and
prevention of tuberculosis. But we closed parks in this pandemic, making
fresh air and sunshine a little less accessible. And we now know that
being outside at a distance is safer than indoors. Travel restrictions
were paired with masses of Americans coming home to clog airports. Many
small businesses could have moved out to a sidewalk sale rather than
close. Some public works could have continued with labourers staying two
A lot of effort has gone into lengthy public debates about wearing
masks and gloves. We’ve had this debate for six months while people were
dying. Debates about masks, gloves and isolating are the evidence that
something is missing in what should be simple communication tasks.
There’s a lack of trust and compliance, which is an indictment of the
communication ability of authorities. We’re better off just staying
indoors than having a public debate about how long droplets can hang in
the air during a heated discussion on a street corner. We’re better off
working from home than banning talking in an elevator in an office
Telling the public what symptoms to watch out for, to keep a distance
of two metres from others, get tested, isolate and improve hygiene will
have more of a positive effect than further detailed research.
We all wash hands, but the details about rubbing finger tips in the
palm, fingers in between fingers, and getting to the backs of hands and
wrists for at least 30 seconds several times a day is useful and even
life-saving information. An explanation of why to avoid touching your
face is also helpful – the virus can get a free ride into the eyes,
ears, nose and mouth.
The mere act of informing the public and mandating certain actions seems to still bedevil politicians and public-policy practitioners.
Publishing in academic journals, tweeting, posting on a website and
even holding a news conference comprises only half the work during
emergency communications. The other half is getting people to understand
and follow what’s said.
About 25 per cent of the population knows little about things a
researcher may take for granted. This 25 per cent may be well-educated
but in their child-rearing years, or working two jobs, doing shift work
or learning English as a second language. Some just opt out of the
In order to reach all audiences, officials need to use press
releases, opinion pieces in newspapers, a speakers’ bureau of experts to
mix it up in high schools, service clubs, book clubs, community
organizations, universities and elsewhere.
New and creative techniques are being used in general emergency
communication. These include robo-calls, door knocking, doorknob
hangers, lawn signs, LED signs on trucks and loudspeakers on
helicopters. Germany used effective techniques to find COVID-19 cases in
the community and prevent the spread of the virus. Ontario used its
emergency alert calls to remind citizens to stay indoors. The City of
Toronto used signage on bus shelters and elsewhere.
These are effective methods but they aren’t the only ones. Public
health professionals need to tap into their creative side, team with
communications and technology specialists, or tailor and expand
successful strategies elsewhere for new populations and audiences.
As long as the virus lurks and poses any risk, we need our best
people working to get the word out with laser-beam focus. We may have
gotten off to a slow start, but it’s time to look forward and deploy new
strategies about things we know can work in order to control the
By Derek Ng, Deborah Prabhu and Allan Bonner. Originally published by Troy Media.