An outbreak that started in January 2020 in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province in People’s Republic of China (“PRC”), has since spread across the world to become a global pandemic. The worst outbreaks to date have been in Wuhan, Italy’s northern regions, Spain, France, the United Kingdom, Iran, and the United States. New York state has been especially hard hit, and the US will remain at risk for some months ahead. The virus has impacted developing counties with poor health systems such as Africa and Latin America and left the world facing major economic impacts, affecting global social stability.
Photo NZ newsroom: PM NZ Jacinda Adheren addressing the country
Building effective Government communication during a crisis
Globally, countries are facing unprecedented challenges from COVID-19 and the strain on governments is extreme whilst the impact on people all over the world continues to grow. It has never been more important for Governments to communicate effectively with a wide range of stakeholders: from residents and businesses to at-risk groups and employees. But many counties were unprepared or failed to demonstrate leadership as citizens locked down and economies shutdown. The problem for all Governments has been that COVID-19 information is changing hourly. Sometimes answers are hard to find (even from experts and elected officials) and misinformation is spreading almost as quickly as the virus itself.
The communication gap
The speed and spread of the epidemic took many Governments by surprise, with responses which either impacted or confirmed public trust and support. Initially, public criticism was levelled at China for failing to act quickly and keeping the public informed. But within a week of identifying the unknown virus, China successfully sequenced it and reported the genetic information to the World Health Organization (WHO). Comparatively, it took a couple of months for SARS to be identified and sequenced in 2003. WHO praised China for continuing to provide clear communication to the world and the Chinese public.
Other countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, UK and USA, have continued to be been criticized, however, for being slow to react and providing conflicting information on virus management and health implications. A journalist based in London told Asia Thinkers that in his view, “the UK Governments initial response to the coronavirus pandemic was confusing.” He further went on to say that “the government’s own communication about the risks of coronavirus and the guidance people should follow was patchy, with often evasive, ambiguous and confusing messaging”. US President Trump also downplayed the impact of the disease making inaccurate and misleading statements that contradicted evidence presented by public health experts, including the timelines for vaccine development. Whereas the Governments of New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Vietnam have been praised for taking swift, strong action, being transparent and providing clear messaging to their public.
Asia Thinkers asked an International Consultant based in Singapore who specialises in crisis communication, what advice he would give Government leaders during the COVID-19 crisis:
“At its core, crisis communication is about honesty, transparency, accountability, and consistency. More than ever, Governments need a clear and deliberate communication strategy to maintain stability and build trust with their community. Right now, Government leaders need to communicate in a direct, timely, and honest manner. The key to navigating this crisis is to remain calm and flexible, understanding that you may have to change course multiple times.”
He further commented, “In this uncertain time, be transparent, concise, and sympathetic. Share facts and updates, but do not downplay the realities facing your country and the world. Utilise all the social media outlets available to you. They are a lifeline between you and the public – calming fears and disseminating information.”
As the virus spread globally, many Governments failed to demonstrate visible leadership and planning and tackling key issues, instead creating confusion and sowing public mistrust. The US Government has been called to task with health experts agreeing that the U.S. population needed more accurate information on the virus, but were struggling to get it right.
As one Analyst commented, “the way that officials, leaders, and experts talk with the public during this crisis matters because it could mean the difference between life and death.” Most experts agree that in the US and elsewhere there’s a disconnect between communications based on good intentions and recommendations based on sound science. Such was the case when the White House indicated that to save the economy, people might go back to work as early as Easter. That was directly in opposition to the science-based outlook communicated by federal public health authorities, warning that social distancing could last for several months to halt the spread of disease and protect human life. Days later, the White House retreated from their position.
In counties where strong leadership emerged and planning was transparent, they engaged their citizens early on, involving civil society, organisations, businesses, social entrepreneurs and the general public in managing the COVID-19 pandemic. As the New Zealand PM said, “Go early and Go Hard.” Comments obtained by Asia Thinkers via Facebook from 12 New Zealand and Singaporean netizens confirmed that they had full confidence in their Governments actions. The sampling of NZ citizens found 90% support for the actions taken by Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern.
As one NZ Journalist said, “her compassionate and inclusive leadership is one of the main reasons Kiwis were prepared to buckle down and comply with strict public health rules.”
Embracing digital communication during the epidemic
During the crisis, governments have not only used traditional media channels to keep citizens updated but many have also embraced digital information and communication technology. Health experts agree that it is digital government technology, either through information sharing or online services, that have kept governments and people effectively connected during the COVID-19 crisis.
A study by the United Nations during the COVID-19 pandemic found that governments were initially slow to provide information on their national portals, mobile apps or through social media platforms. A review of the national portals of the 193 United Nations Member States showed that by 25 March 2020, 57 per cent (110 countries) have put in place some kind of information on COVID-19, while around 43 per cent (83 countries) did not provide any information; but further analysis showed that by 8 April 2020, around 86 per cent (167 countries) have included information and guidance about COVID-19 in their portals.
Many governments have utilised social media platforms to connect with people. Some have partnered with influencers to disseminate accurate information about the COVID-19 outbreak and to counter harmful misinformation. There has been a particular focus on engaging with youth and children, who are vulnerable to fake news. For example, Norway’s Prime Minister, Erna Solberg held an online press conference with a Q&A session specifically for kids to help ease their fears.
Technology has played a key role in developing communication and obtaining information from the public. Government partnerships with the private sector have included the Chinese development of Health QR Codes based on health data declared by residents, allowing local governments to verify the personal declaration information and issue an e-certificate of personal health information. In South Korea, officials used location data from mobile phones, credit card transaction records and CCTV footage to trace and test people who might have recently come into contact with an infected person. Singapore was one of the first countries to implement contact tracing technology with its “TraceTogether” imitative, using mobile phone Bluetooth to anonymously save data of other users with whom one has crossed paths. Once a person’s encounter becomes infected, the user receives a notification, which allows for immediate self-testing or self-isolating.
Misinformation is spreading almost as quickly as the virus itself. There have been waves of fake news and viral hoaxes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Users with ill objectives or inadequate knowledge contribute to the spread of fake news and create further panic in society. Thousands of COVID-19 scam and malware sites have emerged daily, such as the sale of counterfeit surgical masks, fake self-testing kits and so on. The World Health Organization has categorised this as an ‘infodemic’, “an overabundance of information — some accurate and some not.”
Fake news has undermined government objectives making it difficult for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it. In response, some governments have launched response units or campaigns to coordinate the fight against online misinformation about COVID-19. Even before the coronavirus turned life upside down and triggered a global ‘infodemic’, social media platforms were under growing pressure to curb the spread of misinformation. Last year, Facebook co-founder and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg called for new rules to address “harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability.” Now, amid a rapidly evolving pandemic, when more people than ever are using social media for news and information, people must trust the content.
Digital platforms are taking more steps to tackle misinformation about COVID-19 on their services. In a joint statement, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Reddit, Twitter, and YouTube have pledged to work together to combat misinformation. More recently, however, Facebook’s spam filter inadvertently marked legitimate news information about COVID-19 as spam. While Facebook has since fixed the mistake, this incident demonstrated the limitations of automated moderation tools. In a step in the right direction, Facebook is allowing national ministries of health and reliable organisations to advertise accurate information on COVID-19 free of charge. Twitter, which prohibits political advertising, is allowing links to the Australian Department of Health and World Health Organisation websites. Twitter has also announced changes to its rules including updates to address content that goes against authoritative public health information, and an increase in its use of machine learning and automation technologies to detect and remove potentially abusive and manipulative content.
While there are currently measures in place to filter the amount of fake news across these platforms, netzines are still forced to decide for themselves what to trust. Fears are growing that fake news is putting lives at risk, prompting internet users to self-treat symptoms using unproven remedies. Additionally, with access to such an abundance of news, mental health needs to be considered and internet users across the globe are self-regulating and limiting their news intake to protect themselves. One Hong Kong-based journalist commented that “it is almost impossible to escape coronavirus-related news. As avid social media users, our timelines and newsfeeds are full of friends and family sharing news updates, sponsored advertisements for protective equipment such as masks and people openly sharing their feelings about politically made social distancing decisions.”
“We can hope that these measure put in place to limit fake news are efficient, however, as the world is still trying to navigate this pandemic, we also have to take it upon ourselves to limit the minimise the amount of news that we absorb daily. Tuning in to trusted sources and experts and fact-checking by looking out for typical attributes associated with fake news can go a long way in reducing anxiety and ultimately protecting our mental health.”
COVID-19 offers vital lessons to Governments on crisis communication
The missing link in managing COVID-19 has been an effective crisis communication framework. Leaders who have been able to deliver a message that has been clear, consistent, compassionate, accurate and credible have provided leadership to nations in distress. The emphasis on public safety and not convenience has endeared the public and won over many sceptics. This was not the case in the UK where appalling communications moved from focusing on a herd mentality and minor movement restrictions and then quickly to a full-blown lockdown.
It was clear early on that transparent and consistent information was essential to positive communication. The challenge was mixed messages from government officials especially in the US about the level of threat the virus poses and action to be taken. In the US the Centre for Disease Control( CDC) have been careful presenting caring factual messages and trying to apply good principles. Statements from President Trump and other political figures have minimised and sometimes contradicted the CDC raising public concern. A New York Times article headlined ‘Vanquish the Virus? Australia and New Zealand Aim to Show the Way’ criticises US President Donald Trump’s “combative press briefings” and hails New Zealand and Australia’s non-political, expert-led approach to eliminating COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also emphasised the importance of communication and the use of digital communication channels to provide reliable information on global and national COVID-19 developments. Digital platforms have built trust between government and citizens but challenges remain to ensure data privacy and tackling misinformation and disinformation online.
Examples of effective leadership and communication have come from the Prime Ministers of New Zealand and Singapore. Before the detection of the first case in Singapore, the Singaporean Government declared they were preparing its response to COVID-19. After the first case was confirmed, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave a speech which was appreciated by the public for its honesty and transparency. World Health Organization spokeswoman Olivia Lawe-Davies said in an email, “Before the detection of the first case in Singapore, preparedness activities were already underway for the rapid detection and response to 2019-nCoV, including enhanced surveillance and communication with the public and healthcare workers The strength of Singapore’s risk communication was reflected in the strength of their response.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasised not only the importance of communication but also the need for an effective strategy as well as inclusivity and accountability from all governments.