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This story originally appeared on The Conversation
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared that the public health emergency due to covid-19 had been raised to the category of pandemic: that day 114 countries were affected, there were 121,500 confirmed cases and more than 4 000 people had succumbed to the virus.
A year later, there have been 115 million confirmed cases worldwide and more than 2.5 million deaths.
“Pandemic is not a word we should use lightly,” said WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus that March 2020. But in the year that has passed since then, the fate of many countries has depended on how they leaders have communicated the crisis to their citizens.
The impact of the pandemic is unprecedented and all governments faced challenges in dealing with a very serious but highly unpredictable threat to the lives of their citizens. And some governments responded better than others.
My colleagues and I recently conducted a comparative study on how 27 countries responded to the first wave of COVID-19, and how they communicated that response to their citizens.
We invite national experts to analyze the communication style of their respective governments, the flow of information about the coronavirus and the actions taken by civil society, mapping these responses in the number of cases and deaths in the countries in question. Our work reveals distinct responses that suggest that each government’s handling of the pandemic has been closely related to previously existing patterns of leadership.
Following the news of the spread of covid-19 across international borders, national preventive measures should have been carefully explained. WHO proved poorly prepared, provided misleading and wrong advice regarding international travel, including from Hubei province, and was doubtful about the efficacy of wearing masks. Faced with this situation, much of what happened later was reduced to how the leaders of each country communicated to their citizens the risks they faced.
Crisis management experts and social psychologists emphasize the importance of clarity and empathy in communication during a public health emergency.
So who got it right and who got it wrong?
South Korea and Ghana
We found two important examples of this communication style that worked well in practice. South Korea avoided lockdowns because it clearly communicated the COVID-19 threat as early as January, encouraged the use of face masks (already in common use in response to a previous SARS epidemic), and quickly launched a virus tracking app. contacts.
Each change in the official alert level, accompanied by new advice regarding social contact, was carefully communicated by Jung Eun-Kyung, director of the country’s Center for Disease Control, who used the changes in her own life to demonstrate how the new guidance should work in practice.
The transparency of this approach was also reflected in the communication style of the President of Ghana, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo.
Akufo-Addo took responsibility for coronavirus management and carefully explained each required action, being honest about the challenges Ghana faced. “We know how to revive the economy. What we do not know is how to bring people back to life, “said the president. His lessons in empathy earned him praise within his country and also around the world.
Brazil, UK and India
South Korea and Ghana took a consistent tone highlighting the risks of the new pandemic and how it could be mitigated. Instead, countries that fared the worst encouraged complacency and gave inconsistent messages about the COVID-19 threat.
In March 2020, just three weeks before shutting down the country and catching COVID-19, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson downplayed the threat, saying he had been shaking hands with infected people, against the recommendations of its expert advisors. Today, the UK has one of the highest per capita death rates from covid-19 in the world.
To avoid an initial complete confinement, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who also contracted the disease , called on Brazilians to continue leading normal lives, defying the guidance of experts and polarizing opinions in a partisan way. Such practices led Brazilians to mistrust official information and spread erroneous information, while adherence to containment measures became more of an ideological issue than a public health issue.
Meanwhile, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a quick shutdown just four hours in advance, sparking an internal migration crisis, with poor workers leaving cities to travel hundreds or thousands of kilometers to reach their homes in field. Understandably, workers prioritized their fear of homelessness and starvation over the risk of COVID-19 spreading across the country.
None of these responses took into account the impact that the coronavirus would have on society, or that credibility is earned with consistency. The poor results in each case are a partial reflection of these leadership errors.
Bad luck or bad management?
Of course, the development of the pandemic was not solely due to the good or bad communication of the leaders. Health systems and demographics may have played a role as well, and the worst affected countries not only had strategic weaknesses, but are also global transportation hubs and popular destinations. This is the case of London, New York or Paris. In hindsight, it would have been prudent to close the borders, despite the WHO’s advice to the contrary.
Still, it is clear that leaders who adopted clear, early, expert-led, consistent, and empathetic guidance performed well and were able to mitigate the worst effects of the virus.
On the other hand, those who politicized the virus, exhibited unbridled optimism or made hasty decisions continue to lead some of the countries with the most cases and deaths from COVID-19.