COVID 19 and Messaging
We all know that successful communication is tied to messaging. Why is it then that the Australian community is receiving such appalling messaging in the ongoing COVID 19 crisis?
Bad new is seldom, if ever, a successful lever for improved human behaviour. Indeed it can often be the opposite, a signal that it is everyone for themselves. If everyone is not going to survive, I will do my best to ensure that I do, even if this means taking more than my share and pushing others out of the way. This in part explains the unseemly panic buying which the prime minister has called ‘un-Australian’.
For the last fortnight and more the news has been dreadful, indeed quite frightening. Because Margaret and I are in the vulnerable age quartile we have been successfully frightened into not going out except to shop once a week. If I were a 20-year-old, I would not be so easily frightened. The frightening news gives very little incentive to the young, fit, and healthy to keep all the social distancing guidelines that have been ubiquitously present in any messaging. Added to this of course has been extraordinary confusion in the messaging. What on earth possessed the Prime Minister to say he would give one last shot at the football before it was closed down. Or what on earth was in his head or the head of his advisor to say getting your hair cut was ok as long as you were not there longer than half an hour. Or what makes five at a wedding safe, but 10 at a funeral will be ok.
Last night, on 7.30 Report, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer either did not understand the questions put to him by Lee Sales, or refused to answer them. He sounded like a spin operative on cue from the government.
The problem that has to be turned on its head is that looking after number one is Australian within a culture overseen by an ideologically driven neo-liberal government. Look at the Minister for Social Services in operation, it appears his interests and that of his party come before anything else. “Everyone who has a go will be given a go”. Within a neo-liberal world view, private enterprise is rewarded and investment in the social economy reduced to the lowest level with which the government can get away. In this world we are taught not to rely on any form of back up – that is left-wing socialism. It is little wonder we have a prime minister who notoriously has great difficulty in expressing genuine empathy, for to show empathy is to fail to encourage self-reliance.
The messaging could and should be turned on its head. The message should be loud and clear that if all the social distancing measures were followed then we could be out of this reasonably quickly. This is the good news and it is not pie in the sky. The virus cannot survive unless it is passed on. Zero contact prevents the passing on. It is within the wit and capacity of Australian society to do this. We are not doing what we could and should do because the reward of doing so is not being made crystal clear. It should not be necessary for these appalling queues outside Centrelink. They are there because bad news breeds bad outcomes. Good news promotes good outcomes. People will be able to go back to work sooner rather than later as long as everyone of us makes the effort to isolate or self-distance denying the virus the capacity to be spread. China has apparently done it – so we are led to believe. Japan and South Korea are doing it. Do we lack the inner fortitude to do it? No I do not think so. We just lack the messaging which tells us that in this discipline lies our salvation. This torture can end without waiting 18 months for a vaccine.
It should be noted we have been struggling with the same flawed messaging in relation to global warming and climate change. For too long those of us who have wanted action, have fallen into the trap set by denialists to emphasise the serious situation in which we find ourselves. The reaction has been to ridicule what has been said to be apocalyptic nonsense.
At last, global warming messaging has changed, emphasising the good news that action on climate change is economic good sense as well as environmental good sense. Action on climate change creates jobs, long term reliable jobs and increases the employment rate while safeguarding vulnerable industries like tourism and agriculture. Action on climate change does not take us back to the dark age but forward to an age of far greater cooperation, flexibility, and community cohesion. The question is whether changing from a message of gloom and doom to a positive message of genuine advancement has come too late.
And so with COVID 19, negative depressing and confusing messaging is reaping what it is sowing. Is it too late? No it is not. Listen to Melbourne based Professor Peter Doherty, the Nobel Prize winning epidemiologist. Now is the time for every Australian to hear that everyone will reap the benefit of social isolation, that the benefit can be observed in a few short weeks and that it is possible that 2020 need not hold the foreboding that it currently holds either in terms of health or the economy.
COVID 19 and climate change, two ‘wicked’ problems, are similar in terms of response required. Put the economy before the environment and both will ultimately collapse. Put health before the economy and both will flourish. Keep making ‘proportional responses’ and both will be on life support for months.