During an epidemic, clear public communication is crucial. It helps the public to stay informed of life-saving measures, and maintains confidence in the government.
When news broke about confirmed coronavirus cases in Spokane, it was difficult to tell from the report in the Spokesman Review exactly how many cases there were. I was also alarmed to read that officials were unable to contact one of the confirmed cases, and that another case not assigned to a county could have ties to Spokane, but nobody seems to know. When a single infected person can start a chain of many more infections, it is imperative that the Spokane Regional Health District do its utmost to trace confirmed cases and contact those who have been exposed, so people can quarantine themselves. Unclear reporting about confirmed cases damages public trust, and creates more work for health officials downstream as public queries rise.
I have some suggestions about how public communications around the coronavirus can be improved both by the local government and media for the benefit of the public:
1. Communicate with infographics. We’ve already seen the power of a single graph showing what it means to “flatten the curve.” The Straits Times in Singapore is using infographics in a powerful way to show the number of cases and how they are all related to keep the public informed.
2. Make it easy for everyone to understand and carry out what the government recommends. Again, The Straits Times uses bullet points and graphics to summarize the latest social distancing measures, like in this flyer.
3. Communicate in plain English. I was very glad to read in this Spokesman Review article that Gov. Jay Inslee is making data-driven policy decisions, but I also used to work as a policy wonk. What is the person on the street supposed to make of a statement like, “We’re looking at the epidemiological evidence to determine whether the next steps might be worth the economic dislocation to families that would occur”?
4. Celebrate front-line heroes for their efforts. This helps to create a sense of community and keep us all inspired. The Straits Times runs features on first responders and hosts a tribute page where people can write in to thank all those helping to fight the virus.
5. Publicize and celebrate community initiatives to support those in need. I was impressed by how quickly SpokaneFāVs put up a page to highlight community resources in Spokane. The more the media can create a sense of community during this epidemic, the more likely people will engage in prosocial behaviors instead of acting out of fear and self-interest.
My examples are largely from The Straits Times in Singapore as that’s where I come from, and I track that newspaper daily. Nonetheless, the importance of clear public communications is emphasized by every government that has brought its people through an epidemic. Foreign Policy magazine ran an excellent article by the former finance minister of Liberia on what the West can learn from Liberia’s experience with containing ebola, which is well worth reading. Also, according to this article, Rwanda had a public health campaign in place and set up hand-washing stations, airport screening, and cancelled mass gatherings well before the first case was reported there.
There is much we can learn from countries that have pulled through a crisis like the one we are facing. I have confidence in the resilience, creativity, and community spirit of Americans to help each other get through this.