By Hugh O’Reilly, Matthew Bourkas, and James K. Stewart, November 26, 2020
The sharp escalation of COVID-19 cases this fall has highlighted the problem of governments’ extensive reliance on emergency powers and far-reaching orders that limit activities. Their “acute crisis” approach reflects an undue focus on vaccines as the dominant near-term solution to the pandemic. It neither recognizes nor addresses the uncertain timeline and other major challenges until safe and effective vaccines are available, well distributed, and sufficiently taken up.
Despite the very encouraging recent progress on vaccine development, vaccine-centric policies have led to serious weaknesses in government communications and inadequate resources to deal with the current resurgence. It has made the re-imposition of tough restrictions this fall, including partial-to-full lockdowns, the default policy response. In contrast, an approach based on COVID as a “chronic condition” — focusing on effective communications and the “three Ts” of much better testing, tracing and treatments — is crucial to managing COVID’s impacts and transitioning effectively to a vaccine solution.
Most people are poor at assessing risks, often fail at reflecting risks in their actions, and frequently minimize risk when it’s convenient. This is especially problematic with the pandemic. While fear may work to motivate behavioural change in the short term or in an emergency, fear loses its effectiveness beyond the near term. Decision fatigue, information overload, and other major behavioural challenges overwhelm people in ongoing stressful environments.
Enhancing government communications starts with clearer, simpler, and more consistent messages, beginning with the need to avoid the “three Cs”: closed spaces, crowded places, and close-contact settings. Using credible and trustworthy spokespeople and influencers is vital, especially online.
Communication must convey the importance of individual agency as the core part of improved messaging. People’s efforts in wearing masks, keeping socially distant, and not gathering in indoor spaces with poor ventilation or in large numbers when this can be prevented need to be better explained as an ongoing essential requirement. Mixed messages about the pandemic potentially (and unrealistically) subsiding by near-term dates (e.g., Thanksgiving, Christmas), and errors in not requiring more than short-term behavioural efforts have been highly problematic.