Opinion: Complacency, fatigue and lack of compliance present enormous challenges for risk communication during a pandemic

With over 24,000 confirmed cases, weeks of restrictions on movement and a crippled economy in need of revival, Ireland is emerging from lockdown. As the numbers of daily infections and mortalities decrease, and we move tentatively towards easing restriction measures, there is the ever-present risk that complacency, fatigue and lack of compliance could rebound and force us back into extensive lockdown again. The welcome announcement by Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan that "we have effectively extinguished the virus from the community,' was accompanied by the risk requirement that there is "no certainty we can keep this virus suppressed."

We may have flattened the curve by slowing down the spread of the virus, thus reducing the pressure on our systemic healthcare system, but there are no certainties that coronavirus is leaving us anytime soon. Health experts predict an inevitable global second wave and, possibly, a long wait for the availability of a viable vaccine or antiviral treatment.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, John Cooke talks to locals in Kilkee, Co Clare about the adherence of lockdown rules over the bank holiday weekend.

For researchers, this amplifies how the pandemic is teaching us that communicating in a crisis and risk situation is a highly challenging thing to do. Risk communication is how health risk messages are relayed to the public and how the audience reacts to them. When people are confronted with risk, a genuine emotional response is elicited. That response must be acknowledged and dealt with in any communications about a potential threat. Crisis communication is the acute reaction as an event is unfolding and in the immediate aftermath. Combined, effective crisis and risk communications in a health emergency can preserve or win public trust by knowing what to say when to say it and how to say it. More importantly, it can save lives in a public health emergency.

With the bank holiday weekend ahead of us, good weather forecasted and lockdown measures somewhat relaxed, will we see a return to overcrowded beaches with little social distancing and people escaping to holiday homes beyond the 5km limit?  Risk communication is based on ongoing projections and calculations of the potential for future harm, which presents enormous challenges in communicating effectively during a pandemic. This is an evolving situation where the science around a novel and harmful virus is consistently changing, and there is a high level of uncertainty and negativity in the messaging.

Social distancing measures have taken their toll on routines, mental health and the nation's economy by becoming an essential norm in saving lives and limiting illness

How people process risk messages is dependent on numerous factors. When people are bombarded with negative information, they tend to focus on the adverse outcomes as opposed to the positives. Therefore, messaging should focus on what is being done as opposed to what is not being done and provide solution-based approaches. Furthermore, press conference content has confirmed a hybrid approach to crisis and risk communication, where messaging and solutions have been informed and achieved by public engagement through market research and polls and public understanding by top-down scientific information.

Trust and credibility come with an accurate, open, and empathetic approach to risk and crisis communications. Professing that not all strategies and preparations are going to be exacting and that lessons have been learned further increases credibility.

For example, the appraisals in the first days of restrictions concerning compliance may have been better served by giving young people options, and informing their decisions instead of telling them directly what to do. Likewise, transparency confusion around National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) meeting minutes being published lie in stark contrast to New Zealand, where the public has online access to meetings in real-time.

From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One, Lisette Reymer from Newshub in Auckland on proposals by New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern to help kickstart the country's post-lockdown economy

When people are scared or anxious in a crisis, they can have difficulties remembering and comprehending large amounts of information so communicating about risk requires simple, concise, repeatable and relatable information. The approach of the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, is to include references to her own and her family's experience of living under lockdown measures in her communications. Emotive messaging evokes affirmative action from audiences and has been apparent in Leo Varadkar's speeches to the nation, where he has tapped into the human stories of Covid-19 to instil a sense of purpose in the measures being undertaken. Tangible risk is also easier to assess than when the threat is not physically apparent. As the virus is invisible, those who are self-isolating, or cocooning may not feel safe in returning to socialising.

Social distancing measures have taken their toll on routines, mental health and the nation's economy by becoming an upsetting but essential norm in saving lives and limiting illness. This week's discussion on "crushing the curve" turned to the possible speeding up or maintaining of Covid-19 restrictions to eradicate the virus. Both options require communicating feasible timelines with a clear sense of why the decisions have reached a timely consensus as opposed to sudden changes. These reassurances, considered best practice risk communication, could affirm a united effort while going some way to improving social distancing practices. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ