Communication key to virus crisis

Leaders around the world have used the metaphor of being at war as they unveil measures of varying extremity to combat the coronavirus. 

President Trump, of course, has now described himself a “wartime President”. French President Emmanuel Macron described the country as being in a public health “war”. 

There is more than a dollop of political strategy in leaders styling themselves this way. But we cannot deny that there is an aptness to the analogy of staring down a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic.

But the state of emergency measures passed by Cabinet on Friday stopped short of some of the all-encompassing heavyhandedness we have seen in other countries. 

Countries such as England have shut down their school systems until possibly September; Belgium is effectively in a state of lockdown; and employees in some of the largest sectors of the U.S. economy are now working entirely from home.

The measures unveiled by the Government yesterday afternoon ranged from middle-of-the-road to heavy handed. 

The near complete restriction on the freedom of movement of people aged over 60 stands out as the toughest measure but also the most difficult and least likely to be enforced. 

By comparison, the temporary closure of schools, cancelling of gatherings of more than five people and temporary halt to public transport meanwhile will no doubt inconvenience many. 

And the effective closure of Samoa’s international borders to non-citizens and limitations on international travel are the first time since independence measures of such magnitude have been imposed at once. 

But to what degree can we expect these policies to achieve their aim of stopping the spread of the coronavirus (which we do not even have a confirmed case of in Samoa yet?)

Most countries who have announced policy restrictions have prepared their citizens for the long haul. Two weeks, by contrast, seems like a short period of time to measure up to a global pandemic of this magnitude. 

This is especially so when Samoa is facing many more unique obstacles to preventing the coronavirus’ spread than other countries. 

“Social distancing” is the buzzword across much of the world at the moment. It refers to the practice of placing enough distance (1.5 metres) between people to avoid being in the virus’ infection zone.

It is difficult to think of two words more antithetical to Samoan culture and living arrangements than these.

Moreover a large proportion of Samoans have diabetes and other chronic health conditions which will make them much more exposed to the virus than healthy segments of the population. Simply put, the risk here is greater than in other countries.  

Ultimately any one individual measure alone seems less likely to be of consequence. But rather if the Government can successfully change the public's behaviour enough so that they see the need to adhere to them then they will have done a lot more to reduce the risk of transmission. 

To achieve this it is clear that the Government’s response must be complemented by a comprehensive and coherent public information campaign like those we have seen in other countries that answers citizens’ growing panic and advises them on what to do. 

We have this week been seeing contradictory information being released by different branches of the Government.

An example is this week’s statement by the Prime Minister that two patients at the national hospital had been “tested” for the coronavirus. A better word would have been screened as the patients never underwent any formal test, just assessment by doctors. It’s a small point of vocabulary but one that led to widespread confusion among members of the public. 

Then we have had rapid changes in the amount of time it will take for our first suspected case to have her test returned, from 20 down to now three days. 

These are fast changing times and Governments can and do change tack, we understand this.

But without clear and consistently reinforced messaging from the Government we run the risk of either stoking panic or leaving people ambivalent about potentially serious harms. 

Governments elsewhere have taken to holding daily crisis briefings where information on the spread of the virus is disseminated on a daily basis - usually from a single source, such as a Chief Medical Officer.

New Zealand’s response has been exemplary. That country’s Director General of Health, Dr. Ashley Bloomfield, has held daily briefings and press conferences informing the public as soon as new developments come to hand and taking questions from the media. 

Information sessions will also need to be held in the villages about what practical measures can be taken to help people keep their distance.

The concerted mass vaccination campaign last December showed us what can be achieved when society acts as one.

But not only do we need outreach programmes and a strategy that accounts for the unique challenges facing Samoa - we need strong and transparent leadership and communication. 

The response in supermarkets around the country yesterday showed that Samoans are already feeling increasingly anxious about the coronavirus as the beginnings of panic buying set in. 

The best way to assuage these worries is for the Government to be an open book.

In Singapore, the Government sent a WhatsApp message to its citizens to tell them precisely how much food they had in store to last the country in the event of a crisis.

There are plenty of questions lingering in Samoans’ minds at the moment.

These include how, if and when testing kits will be made available and how supply chains, which have been so disrupted of late, can be maintained while much of global transport shuts down. 

Friday’s measures are a welcome start. But they are contingent on striking the right balance of informing people what is at stake and reassuring them that, if the right measures are taken, this storm can be weathered.

After all, without a change in behaviour a state of emergency won't amount to much. 

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