Public health messaging has been a mess

Public health messaging has been a mess

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Public health’s messaging about all things corona virus has been a fiasco of inconsistent, contradictory, incoherent and unclear communications. Every aspect has been a disaster.

From Shrodinger’s Mask (face masks that both work and didn’t work simultaneously), to the confused messaging that led to public shaming of people initially for wearing a mask, then for wearing the wrong type of mask, and now for not wearing a mask – leading to verbal and physical altercations, even shootings.

Now, the world is faced with re-opening but much of the public thinks it is impossible thanks to the confused messaging on the reason for lockdowns (flatten the curve has now become flatten the economy until no one dies). It is a quagmire.

Keeping people apart through voluntary social distancing or mandates to stay home can’t defeat the virus; it isn’t going away until a chunk of the population develops immunity. Once lockdowns are lifted, cases will spike here and there. That was always going to be true. But as long as hospitals don’t become overrun, lockdowns may have served their purpose.

The public messaging has been all wrong, says risk communication consultant Peter Sandman (PhD). Whether it’s on MSNBC or Fox, viewers are told that lockdowns should be lifted when “it’s safe.”“That’s unachievable,” says Sandman, who is co-author, along with his collaborator and wife Jody Lanard (MD), of a May 6 report on Covid-19 crisis communication for the Centers for Infections Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP).

Source: Lifting Covid Lockdowns: It’s Unrealistic to Wait Until It’s Safe – Bloomberg

The authors, in their report, do encourage speculation but with caution: “But we think they mean you shouldn’t speculate overconfidently, you should
make sure your uncertain opinions sound as uncertain as they are.”

They hint at the larger purpose of home made face masks[1]: “Even better than prescribing actions for people to take is offering them a menu of actions. This recruits not just our ability to act, but also our ability to decide. The opportunity to choose ways to protect ourselves and ways to help our neighbors gives us a much-needed sense of control in this out-of-control time.”

The corona virus situation has been an example of incompetent public messaging. The situation was made worse by a media intent on sensationalizing and working over time to hit every panic button with a focus on gloom, doom and fear.


[1] It is crazy that we have groups making face masks by hand. Literally, insane. In only a few weeks, several manufacturers in China designed and built automated assembly lines turning out 500 to 1,000 actual surgical masks per minute. While we recruited volunteers to turn out one mask every 5 to 10 minutes some times using random designs with unapproved materials. We would have been better employing a handful of mechanical and electrical engineers and a group of skilled machinists to just build assembly lines!

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