Better communication for pandemics at all scales

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Katrina Petersen | Research Manager

Date: 26 March 2020

While easy to make commentary about it, information remains a major challenge during pandemics. In part, this is because when a new disease emerges, authorities are almost automatically one step behind at the start, playing catch up for months, trying to identify and understand the unknown. In part, this is because each pandemic seems to have unique public communication needs, needs that have to balance community guidance with individual decisions.

Misaligned information can have drastic results.

In the current COVID-19 pandemic, citizens are buying face masks in record numbers as they worry about their health as they move around public spaces. This has led to face mask shortages that put health workers at risk who are on the front lines. People keep seeing quarantine and isolation regimes expanding and are stocking up in unprecedented ways on things they might need if such measures go into place, including toilet paper, hand sanitizer, pasta, baby diapers and formula. This has left empty grocery shelves and depleted foodbanks; those without the funds to buy ahead cannot get the supplies they need for their day-to-day lives.

This kind of panic is often connected to having, or the perception of having incomplete or conflicting information. This is easy when we get bits and pieces from all over the international news, and panic isn’t just something individual people do, governments and public authorities do it, too.

These challenges, to some degree, revolve around risk communication: communication between authorities and communication with the public.

But many questions that need to be answered for clear communication carry great ethical weight, without clear rights or wrongs:

  • Do you quarantine if that means leaving healthy people within the cordon without the resources they need to survive?
  • When do you sacrifice an economy for societal health?
  • Do we provide all the details for informed individual citizen decision making or do we hold back for privacy or security reasons?
  • How do you approach increased communication when it can lead to stigmatization of those who have faced greater outbreaks?
  • How much do you share about the decisions around these dilemmas with the public for the sake of transparency without leading to revolt by those stuck on the hard end of a trade-off?

Management of information during pandemics remains an incredible challenge because of the range of actors and concerns involved, the different legal, administrative, professional and political cultures, the variety of economic situations. These differences are exacerbated by gaps in transboundary crisis management structures that could support joint communication and decision making. Exploring these challenges and underlying dilemmas are necessary to build trust; trust between nations and public trust of the responding institutions and strategies.

Trilateral, along with 38 other research and innovation institutions, national health authorities, and first responder and humanitarian organisations from across Europe and around the Mediterranean, are taking on these challenges with the newly funded STAMINA project.

The project’s overall aims are to better equip pandemic crises management practitioners at national and regional levels across EU borders to anticipate and respond to the “known-unknowns” in their daily effort to enhance health security. Outcomes will range from an inventory of best practices to tools that bring testing from labs to point-of-case, to information sharing technologies that can improve cooperation and coordination between States, to mechanisms for better understanding public concerns around the infectious disease.

Trilateral will be bringing its ethics and societal impact research paired with its data analytics tools to build a better understanding of how risk communication during pandemics can be more effective.

As the project designs new tools for sharing information between health authorities and nations, bringing together everything from data from wearables to port travel logs to hospital bed availabilities, we’ll also be exploring how to better use social media to listen to the public, to identify in advance, almost like an early warning system, what kinds of fears could lead to panic and what kinds of concerns are shaping personal decision-making across diverse groups and contexts. With this knowledge base, we’ll also be able to propose policies and guidelines that can support increased and better communication for pandemics at all scales.

While this is only a small piece of the broader challenges, we are happy to be able to contribute to making things just a little bit better for all of us living through pandemics.

For more information on this research please contact our team.

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