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Getting the message about COVID-19

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Cartoon by Paddy Jay

Finding a way out of the global pandemic has been made more difficult by misinformation and anti-science media commentary, writes Karl MacCorcráin.

WE ARE NOW over six months into the coronavirus pandemic and the “COVID fatigue” is real. For a minute there, as things began to open back up, you’d swear you could hear a collective sigh of relief. We were “over it”. Over staying at home. Over social isolation. Ready to finally get back to normal.

Now we’re confronted with the possibility of restrictions being re-imposed as Victoria is in the midst of a second wave and it’s still too early to tell whether the virus will continue to claw its way back into other states.

While it’s one thing to have everything shut down once, facing the possibility of doing it again when we thought we were out of the woods just feels cruel. Unfortunately, this virus doesn’t care in the slightest about our sense of what’s fair and continues to exploit any opening it finds, wreaking havoc on the health of our most vulnerable and on our way of life.

Breakdown of communication

It’s a bitter irony that after enduring a time of isolation where our normal channels of human interaction were severely curtailed, that we now find ourselves struggling to communicate with one another in a way that keeps us from going back into lockdown for a second time.

The big step backwards we’ve taken in the past few weeks is, in many ways, a breakdown of communication.

While there are certainly clear cases where people selfishly choose to ignore the messaging – like throwing house parties or participating in large gatherings – some of those bad decisions would likely be mitigated if we were all better at internalising the message and sticking with it. As tempting as it can be to scapegoat those whose flagrant disregard is enough to put them on the evening news, we are all part of the problem.

This isn’t coming from a place of ill intent or because we don’t intellectually accept the importance of social distancing and practising good hygiene. It’s just that, as human beings, we’re not great at making changes and sticking to them.

Dr Tanya Notley, Senior Lecturer on Communication at Western Sydney University, had this to say:

There is lots of research on behaviour change that shows that the smallest changes to our everyday behaviour can be really hard to perform. The main reason is that we often perform everyday activities mindlessly, so we are switched off from thinking about walking to the local café or from doing the grocery shopping so that our brains can focus on other things, like think about what happened at work that day, or what to cook for dinner.

She further explained:

“This is why the signs on the floor telling us which way to walk and where to stand have been so helpful. They’ve supported the messaging, telling us what we need to do at the very time we need to do it.”

Another issue at play is that we don’t like to stand out or look different from those around us. We might find it difficult to speak up when we run into someone we know out in public who doesn't keep a metre-and-a-half distance. Maybe we’re afraid to speak up to suggest that having that birthday get-together with all the grandparents and grandkids isn’t the best idea right now. We might be worried that others will think we’re being over-the-top if we decide to take extra precautions.

One example of this is the proactive use of face masks in shopping centres, public transportation and crowded places:

“People wearing masks often find themselves getting a funny look in NSW simply because it’s not yet a regulated rule, even though it’s a perfectly smart action to take. People see others not following the social distancing rules and they follow suit, perhaps because they don’t want to look different.”

Getting the message right

It’s not only a question of how well we’ve internalised the message but also whether that message has been clearly and accurately communicated in the first place — and whether it’s gotten through.

It would appear that in this respect, the Australian Government, for the most part, has been able to put aside partisanship and focus on doing what’s best for the country.

According to Dr Notley:

It was a good move to have the Chief Medical Officer so active in the messaging. I do think it is important people understand ‘why’ they are asked to make changes but it’s hard to make unwilling people listen to this. This is why the swift implementation of fines and media coverage around them was so important when it was clear we needed people to change their behaviour and to get the message that there would be consequences if they didn’t.

She continued:

Plenty of analysis has shown that Prime Minister Scott Morrison was probably overly relaxed by sending out messages that we could still attend large events when clearly it was time to start reigning people in and getting them to make more considered decisions. This quickly changed and I think the messaging has since been quite clear — especially when you compare us with the countries fairing the worst: the United States.

According to Dr Notley, a significant problem has been how some media outlets have chosen to report on government guidelines. Some networks that could be described as having more of an ideological bent have promoted views that are in conflict with the messaging.

Dr Notley said:

We’ve seen announcers on Sky News suggest the response has been over the top, suggest it is not evidence-based, when it is. Some of the anti-science media commentary on this issue by media organisations has influenced people and it has been disgraceful. It’s put lives at risk and I think there should be more consequences for irresponsible, repeated reporting that is misleading and false.

When it comes to getting the most accurate reporting of advice from the Government and science professionals, Dr Notley has some suggestions:

A Roy Morgan Poll finds that Australians trust the ABC and SBS much higher than any other media organisations for news about the pandemic. I think these channels are very careful about their reporting and they are more accountable than many other media organisations when it comes to carefully presenting the facts. They are also more likely to let us know when or if they get it wrong.

We also spoke of the role of disinformation campaigns and questionable sources that seek to undermine the science, influencing the attitudes of some towards the virus.

Dr Notley explained:

We have seen analysis that shows that Right-wing political groups have been very active in circulating COVID-19 misinformation, particularly in the United States. The disinformation can also be very sophisticated, presenting partial truths, playing into people’s fears and pre-existing biases. It can be very manipulative and very hard to stop.

Of course, the struggle to get the messaging right and to get as many on board as possible will continue in the days, weeks and months ahead.

The question is whether we will continue to trust that the best way forward is to stick together or to listen to those voices that would seek to divide and pit us against one another.

Karl MacCorcráin is a former preacher, non-profit director and bartender-turned-freelance writer.

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