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5 Big Comms Mistakes from the Pandemic

Most people have been confused by mixed messages on the pandemic from officials, academics, and the media. In a piece for The Atlantic, sociologist and academic Zaynep Tufekci has unpacked what’s been going wrong. It’s a long, fascinating read. Here’s a quick summary of the five comms errors that are getting in the way of tackling COVID-19:

1. Risk compensation. Officials have had a rather low opinion of the public’s ability to calculate the risks. The have worried too much that a sense of safety from things like masks, tests and vaccines would lead to reckless behaviour. But there’s no significant evidence for this recklessness. People who adopt safety practices tend to act safe, period.

2. Explanations rather than rules. The overwhelming preference of communicators has been for simple rules — social distancing being the most obvious. Relatively little effort has gone into explaining the thinking behind the rules, especially how the virus spreads. All the evidence points to outdoors transmission being very limited. But this has been lost in the messaging. The result has been poor decisions like public parks being closed for no good reason.

3. Media is looking in the wrong places. Mainstream and social media have made things worse by focusing on the most visible apparent transgressions of the rules. It’s crowded beaches that tend to feature rather than the massively more serious but hard to capture risk of poorly ventilated workplaces.

4. Failure to advocate harm reduction. People are people and they have needs that don’t go away when there’s a pandemic. It’s impossible to eliminate all risk and normally public health advice focuses on risk reduction. But the focus during COVID-19 has been on hard rules rather than advice on how to reduce potential harm. Parents with children desperate to socialise have been particularly hard-hit by the absence of guidance on how their children could socialise safely.

5. Academic over-caution. The early focus was on transmission via objects — clothing, furniture, packaging, and surfaces. That reflected knowledge of how previous epidemics like Ebola had spread. It took the WHO and others an age to recognise that aerosol transmission was the much greater risk. Researchers seemed to be looking for overwhelming evidence that a new transmission route had opened up. Given the scale of the pandemic, a smarter approach might have been to say that this was a novel virus, that it might spread in novel ways, and that there was tentative evidence that aerosol transmission was one such route.