World Leaders Practice Science Communication During Pandemic

The World Health Organization advises governments to make announcements early, be transparent and build trust. 

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte speaks during a recent press conference on the coronavirus pandemic.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte repeated “anderhalve meter afstand” – or “one and a half meters away” – 14 times during an hour-long press conference about the Covid-19 outbreak.

It’s not because the phrase rolls off the tongue in Dutch, though it does have a certain cadence. Rutte was using the key parts of effective science communication: Keep your message short and simple and repeat it often. 

Around the world, leaders have found themselves trying to communicate the rapidly changing news about a novel disease. The world hasn’t experienced a global outbreak of a contagious disease in more than 100 years. Governments and health agencies have struggled, but sometimes succeeded, in getting people to understand what is happening, why the government is taking certain measures and what individuals should, or are legally obligated to, do. 

Be first, be right and be credible, advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The World Health Organization agrees, telling governments to make announcements early, be transparent and build trust. 

Communication experts echo these sentiments. Research into previous disease outbreaks shows that messages are received best when they come from trusted experts, like doctors or community leaders, and officials need to have the trust of the public to get their citizens to adhere to rules like social distancing.

“A clear, straightforward approach is generally the best,” said Jessica McKnight, who researches science communication at Ohio State University. 

Much work has also been done on how to specifically convey messages. A paper recently published in the journal Nature about communication during the Covid-19 outbreak lists 10 best practices, including advising leaders to model desired behavior and framing measures in terms of acting in the common good. 

The language used during crises, especially medical ones, is already confusing for laypeople. New words started popping up before the virus had even spread much beyond China. An NPR story from January explains now-common terms like coronavirus and droplet. When the WHO announced the coronavirus was officially a pandemic, people wondered what it was before. (It was an epidemic, which is a disease outbreak in a region, whereas a pandemic is a global outbreak.) 

Some confusion stems from the gulf between what the average person understands a word to mean and what a highly educated specialist does, but many of the concepts introduced to the public don’t even have clear definitions among experts.

“Physical distancing is not a legal term. It’s just descriptive of what they want people to do.”  said Wendy Mariner, a professor of public health law at Boston University, in an interview with Courthouse News in March. The term wasn’t even in the public lexicon until earlier this year. 

While most European countries were on lockdown, the Netherlands had a so-called “intelligent lockdown” that advised people to keep social distance. While the U.S. was under stay-at-home orders, Malaysians were subjected to a “movement control order” in and Filipinos were in “enhanced community quarantine.” 

“There has been huge variation in communication during the pandemic,” said Jay Van Bavel, a professor of psychology at New York University. 

The most egregious communication failures have come from leaders like Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who dismissed Covid-19 as a “little flu” and claimed that Brazilians had a natural immunity to such diseases.

The president of Madagascar, Andry Rajoelina, told his citizens: “Let’s drink this herbal tea to protect ourselves, to protect our family and our neighbors […] and there will be no more deaths.”

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks during a Facebook Live coronavirus update.

President Donald Trump famously claimed that anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine was a cure and that he had been taking it.

Even though many people don’t believe some of these outrageous claims, the discussions of them in the media and online lead to confusion and create distrust. People then don’t know who or what to believe. 

Leaders also make genuine mistakes. The WHO recently had to walk back comments that Maria Van Kerkhove, a Covid-19 expert, made at a press conference last week. Van Kerkhove said that transmission of disease by asymptotic people was “very rare” but models show that it could account for 40% of infections. She was referring to real-world data, not to models, but the remarks were confusing and lots of headlines were published before they were clarified. 

“Once people start to believe bad stuff, it’s hard to dislodge,” said Marko Milanovic, professor of public law at Nottingham University who studies misinformation. 

While the U.S. president may have been a poor communicator during the crisis, according to Van Bavel,

“Other local leaders who have done an excellent job here, including federal scientists, governors, mayors, community leaders,” the professor said.

He cited New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as a national leader who has been an effective communicator during the pandemic. Wearing a faded green sweatshirt, Ardern told her country’s citizens on Facebook Live to “stay at home, break the chain and you’ll save lives” just before the country went into lockdown. She just announced that New Zealand has eliminated the virus. 

Other governments got creative. Finland hired social media influencers to spread awareness, hitting another recommendation from the CDC: targeting groups who might be missed by traditional outreach.

The Dutch government hired its first sign language interpreter, Irma Sluis, to interpret the weekly coronavirus press conferences. She became a viral sensation in the country for her translation of “niet hamsteren” – or “don’t hoard” – and the government recently announced it will use sign language interpreters for all its press conferences. 

McKnight, the Ohio State researcher, recently co-authored a story in National Geographic about using humor in science communication. Her findings show that satirical comedy shows, like “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah, can help people better understand scientific topics and dislodge erroneous beliefs.

“But humor doesn’t work in every situation. The CDC is probably better sticking to being straightforward,” she said.  

The CDC’s straightforward advice? “During an emergency, the right message, from the right person, at the right time can save lives.”

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