As we observe the global spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus and the responses to it, we can’t help but feel a bit of déjà vu. Since Safecast began in March 2011, we’ve accumulated significant experience and insight about trust, crisis communication, public perception, and what happens when people feel threatened by the lack of reliable information and start taking matters into their own hand. Some of that learning will be useful in today’s situation. With efforts towards mutually beneficial outcomes for everyone, we are sharing a few high level best practices from our own experiences. (Please note: Our expertise is in communities and environmental monitoring, not virology or epidemiology. We have collected a list of reliable experts and information sources on this page.)
Our advice to governments:
- Prioritize transparency. There is no outcome where misleading the public today is beneficial tomorrow. Conversely, honesty will pay future dividends like crazy.
- Safety first. Do not risk the long term health of your constituents for short term political gain. Keeping people from getting sick should not be a partisan issue.
- Trust is not a renewable resource. This isn’t the 1920’s anymore, people have many sources of information to turn to–if they don’t feel they can trust you they will simply look somewhere else and not look back.
- Effective messaging is crucial. Get your best trained crisis communicators in front of the public often and let them do the talking. If politicians demand to be part of the media appearance, that should be limited to a brief expression of compassion and concern and then they should hand it over to the experts immediately. Experts should not put in a situation where they have to immediately correct or contradict what politicians have just said.
- Travel bans, quarantines, and school closures are highly disruptive measures. They should not be enacted without carefully thinking through the ramifications and the difficulty of deciding when to stop them. The specific conditions of their implementation and for ending travel bans or other closures should be explicit before they are enacted and carefully explained to the public beforehand.
Our advice to media:
- Resist the urge to rush to publish scoops which haven’t been fact checked. Misinformation spreads much faster and is more persistent than after-the-fact corrections.
- Fact check all claims, and provide sources for assertions. Cite scientists and institutions by name, and avoid “unnamed government officials.”
- If your site is paywalled, consider disabling that function for articles relating to this situation. We understand that people need to be paid for their work, but restricting information that can impact the health of entire populations to only those who can afford it is not a good policy.
Our advice to people:
- Wash your hands frequently, and correctly.
- Be aware that physical contact is a primary route of transmission, think twice before shaking hands, etc..
- Don’t share utensils, drink from communal cups, etc.
- [Revised March 12] Many experts, such as the WHO, advise against the use of face masks by the general public unless they are ill themselves or taking care of sick people. This is partly due to questions about their efficacy, but also driven by the current global shortage. In some countries such as Japan masks serve a valuable social signaling function, indicating that the individual is aware of the risks and is taking precautions and thinking of others.
- In the same way that the global run on Geiger counters after 3/11 meant that there were not enough available for the people in Japan who really needed them, the current shortage of face masks means medical personnel and others who care for the sick might not have enough.
- Recommendations will vary from place to place, and while following the global situation is useful it is far more important to understand your local situation. Follow local & regional CDC/medical announcements, advice and situation reports.
- Regardless of the current situation in your area, you should prepare to stay indoors at home for two weeks if that becomes necessary or advisable at some point.
Similarities exist between the events of 2011 and what we’re seeing in 2020. It’s not unusual to fear the unknown, and both radiation and viruses are invisible threats which heighten general anxiety. Average people have almost no way to determine for themselves if they’ve come into contact with either, so must rely on specialists, measurements and testing devices, as well as government and media reports. How governments behave during the initial days and weeks of a crisis will determine whether or not the public trusts what they have to say going forward, or seeks out alternative explanations instead, often in the form of online rumors. In 2011, the Japanese government did not provide timely and credible information to the public about the spread of radiation. The media failed in holding representatives accountable, checking sources, and providing useful information when it was most needed. Trust was lost at the outset and has not been regained even nine years later. We’re seeing the same patterns emerge in regard to COVID-19. Governments are inadequately prepared to handle the incident, and official statements have been vague, contradictory and/or misleading. Vital information the public needs to know has been routinely omitted, or in some cases removed after the fact. Good crisis communication is possible, but failing to provide level-headed, straightforward information only makes matters worse.
It is our assessment that many governments are currently prioritizing the minimization of their own political risks over helping the public deal with valid health concerns. This is bad for everyone.
Due to this information vacuum and the sense of helplessness/abandonment people feel, rumors have been rampant. The rumors are not only about the virus itself and its health consequences, but about its effects on travel, lifelines, business, and the ability to take adequate precautions. In Japan, though experts say they’re of little help, face masks have been unavailable for weeks. Hand sanitizer is sold out everywhere. There’s also been a nonsensical run on toilet paper, which we’re now seeing spread through Europe and North America as well. Will international travelers be required to enter quarantine in some countries? It’s a distinct possibility with huge ramifications, and trustworthy government spokespeople should have started explaining weeks ago when and why such a step might be taken, and for how long. But no clear information has been provided. As in 2011, the lack of trustworthy information has spawned fast-traveling conspiracy theories which are easily debunked but remain in wide circulation regardless.
Another parallel we see with the Fukushima events of 2011 is the stigmatization of the affected populace. In Asia this has led to a rash of anti-Chinese sentiment, overseas it has manifested as a rise in generalized anti-Asian racism. Fukushima has suffered serious stigma which has damaged the long term market for goods produced there, and we can anticipate that areas of the globe that experience large COVID-19 outbreaks will suffer similarly in the months and years to come. We’ve already seen a few widely publicized confrontations in the street and on trains, touched off by people coughing or cutting into a line to buy face masks; this is a direct result of a misinformed public and should be seen as a preview of what is to come elsewhere if misinformation is allowed to keep spreading unchecked.
The most responsible governments have already explained to their citizens how and why various disruptive decisions might be made, and the steps being taken to minimize the impacts. Unfortunately a number of countries, Japan and the United States included, have not. These countries have not been testing the populace widely, and as their testing programs ramp up the number of detected cases will certainly rise, in some cases alarmingly. One positive point is that so far children do not seem to be affected much, and in fact about 80% of the cases contracted by adults have been mild. For most of us, the inconvenience we experience due to the spread of the virus will be far worse than the virus itself. On the other hand, the elderly and people with certain existing health problems will suffer the most serious effects from the virus, and account for most of the fatalities to date. Precautions should be focussed on protecting those most vulnerable.
Additional information: This situation is fast-changing, and while it can be exhausting and stressful to continually process information like this, it’s important to stay as current as possible. To this end we have created this page with links, resources and a dedicated daily email newsletter.