COVID-19 Balancing Acts

COVID-19 Balancing Acts 

The press has fostered growing recognition of the balance that politicians must strike between public health and the economy. This is important, but more attention needs to be focused on the balancing acts of individuals – the public at large. Each individual needs to juggle multiple pressures in making choices about staying at home, social distancing, and how to best comply with COVID-19 guidelines. A rational health communication model might suggest that actors need to focus more effort on gaining a consensus across governmental actors and experts and do a better job in communicating the recommendations in more engaging ways that the public will accept. But this assumes that a clear message can be agreed, sent, and well received. Moreover, what if there are rational reasons for the mixed messages and differences in reception?

It has become increasingly understood that many public officials pursue at least dual objectives – achieving the health objectives of protecting the public from the virus and the economic objectives of getting people back to work and the economy growing. Given that multiple actors are pursuing multiple objectives from different levels of expertise and positions in government, it would be difficult indeed to create a single message to communicate to the public. Given the permutations of actors, expertise, timing, and positions across the nations and regions of the UK, it is almost inevitable that many voices speak for governments of the UK with some major and many subtle differences in messaging. They are not always in sync with expert advice, which also varies across experts and overtime.

At the receiving end, many among the public may not listen or view governmental instructions or announcements or follow news and social media about them. Still others might follow these messages but not fully understand them – feeling confused. And even among those who receive and understand governmental advice, too many fail to comply or follow the recommendations of the experts. 

It is possible to imagine everyone among the public is in the same boat – all wanting to avoid the COVID-19 virus and anxious to get the latest and best information from the government’s health experts. However, the public includes a diverse set of actors, whose behaviour is likely to be shaped and constrained by their:

  • Health: young, healthy individuals are likely to be less concerned about the virus than older people with underlying medical conditions;
  • Employment: highly paid information workers, who can work at home, are likely to be less worried about the economic consequences of the virus than those who work in personal services for low wages;
  • Finances: households financially able to ride out the pandemic versus those with few slack resources, including the homeless;
  • Household: a large family in a small household may find it more difficult to stay at home, or consider a family distributed across multiple households; 
  • Social Networks: college students in fraternities or dormitories are likely to feel social pressure to socialize more than retired seniors living alone;
  • Geography: families living in the most densely populated areas, such as in high-rise apartments, and dependent on public transit, are likely to be less able to socially distance than are rural or suburban residents who can drive for work or to shop. 

These are only a few of the many ways the audience is quite heterogeneous, but they illustrate why it may be difficult for one message to reach an audience who are all as deeply concerned about COVID-19 and equally able to act as a collective. Public communication strategy needs to incorporate the many motivations and constraints that lead to failures of access, understanding or compliance.

I am encouraged by some efforts to empirically understand the public in the time of COVID-19. In the UK, Ofcom has followed public viewing of different media and health messages. And a study of ‘communicating the pandemic‘ at Leeds, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), which I have offered some advice, is looking at how COVID-19 messages are received, how well they are understood, and to what degree individuals comply with government guidance. Studies like that at Leeds could help us move away from an overly simplistic, too homogeneous, overly rational model of the public to an understanding of how a heterogeneous public balances conflicting pressures on their lives as they seek to manage exposure to this virus. Such an understanding should help in communicating guidance effectively in the times of COVID-19 threats.

More information on the Leeds University AHRC study on ‘Communicating the Pandemic’ can be found here.  

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