OPINION | Andre Vlok: The consequences of govt. getting the Covid-19 message wrong

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Government needs to learn to use the right tools to persuade people in crucial areas such as vaccination and prevention behaviour, writes the author.
Government needs to learn to use the right tools to persuade people in crucial areas such as vaccination and prevention behaviour, writes the author.
Gallo Images/Papi Morake

Over the last 18 months, over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a leadership failure from government. Andre Vlok examines what government can do to partially undo this failure as well as the conflict cycles that are developing as the fourth wave approaches.

The last eighteen months have shown us how volatile the pandemic is, how quickly and nearly predictably the scientific consensus and best practices can shift or become more nuanced, and how crucial the timeous and accurate handling of the news surrounding developments, risk and the appropriate measures for combating the virus is. 

While there are discernible patterns of how governments and other responsible agencies get this message right and wrong worldwide, I will focus on the South African government and other responsible agencies. I will also briefly look at how the message can cause and perpetuate conflict in our society and how to improve the message. 

Crisis communication principles show us how important it is for authorities to correctly shape and disseminate their preferred message during times of crisis and uncertainty. This message, including the words used, the timing and methods used to convey the core message all contribute importantly to the framing of the problem and the solution, and create a variety of lenses through which the situation is to be approached and resolved.

READ | Covid-19: Uptick in SA's cases as fourth wave looms warns NICD 

It can be assumed that a responsible government would wish to engineer as stable an environment as possible from which to deliver such message, to convey its often difficult and unpopular news in an environment where it, the messenger and decision maker, is viewed by as many as possible as competent and trustworthy, and to deliver a generally reliable and credible message. 

To evaluate the success of this message and the consequences of any failures in the process, we need not prescribe what that message should be (for example pro-vaccination, lockdowns etc). We can simply evaluate the basic Covid message and see how effective it is in achieving government's goals. 

Decisive and effective leadership needed 

Communication during a crisis such as the pandemic requires decisive and effective leadership. This, together with media management and control of the narrative within the information environment determines the success or failure of such crisis communication. 

Conflict and crisis communication research and case studies show that the public assesses a government's handling of a crisis such as the pandemic across six dimensions – capability (resources available), competence (efficient application of resources), compassion (does the communication reflect concern for the victims and families), correctness (perceptions of honesty, fairness, transparency), credibility (the consistent and reliable provision of information) and anticipation (the assessment whether any of these experiences could have been avoided or dealt with better). 

Research and experience have developed a long list of effective measures that should be utilised in this process of combating the pandemic and preventing or minimising destructive conflict behaviour. A few examples to compare our lived reality to would include the concept of "we-ness", which is a concept of national unity, a crisis culture that engenders a shared and common fate, a shared sense of "we are in this together".

READ | Covid-19: Lack of education could be driving vaccine hesitancy say health authorities

This concept is aided by the establishing or promoting of a strong central figure, someone who represents that "us". Establishing this we-ness through effective communication leads to mutual concern and support, leading to community resilience.

Important and ongoing challenges to the government and authorities responsible for this communication include the ongoing framing of problems and solutions, and this information must be correct and timeously delivered. Accuracy establishes credibility.

Speculation should be minimised, current information, shortcomings in such information and what is being done to eliminate such shortcomings must be clearly communicated. All involved role-players should form part of an integrated framework, which should prevent or minimise the five established pitfalls and communication errors identified in times of crisis, being:

  • Mixed messages from experts.
  • Information released late.
  • Paternalistic attitudes.
  • Not countering rumours and myths in real time.
  • Public power struggles and in-group preferences. 

Failure to deliver such effective crisis communication leads to increasingly unmanageable conflict. Individuals and groups start creating open division and even harmful behaviour as a direct result of a failure to establish a feeling of national unity. This increasingly then leads to partisan-framed behaviour and posturing. Perceptions that communities are fractured and polarised lead to increased selfishness, defensiveness and a further fracturing of society into in-groups or smaller societal units. 

An often undervalued driver of conflict and non-compliance during Covid is the effect of poverty. The research, both here and internationally, clearly establishes poverty as arguably the greatest driver and trigger of non-compliance. Any governmental strategy of effective crisis communication and conflict prevention during Covid would therefore have to urgently and in a sustainable manner understand and incorporate poverty as a very important factor to bear in mind during such crisis management. 

Not managing this process effectively leads to perceptions of fairness disparity and increased perceived threat escalation. People feel excluded, or that their views are not heard or taken seriously, or that they are discriminated against, all leading to a perceived "solution" of them seeking alternative answers, narratives and explanations. 

So how do the South African government and related responsible agencies and individuals fare against this roadmap to effective crisis communication? 

Errors made 

Comparing our government's adherence to the abovementioned crisis communication guidelines shows that many errors were made, and that they have not fared very well at all. While some individuals and organisations have done heroic work under challenging circumstances, the general governmental response was poorly managed, often creating the distinct impression that the responsible leadership are unaware of any of the research and guidelines we looked at. Over the course of the last eighteen months, the Covid message was handled slightly better, internationall, even though governments made mistakes. The South African government's report card thus far contains several unnecessary, predictable and costly mistakes.   

The positives that stood in our favour in March of 2020 (our experience with HIV/AIDS, President Ramaphosa's relative popularity at the time, a decisive initial lockdown and so on) were gradually eroded by a steady stream of blunders, inexperience, political infighting and selfish criminality from individuals where one would have expected a much higher ethical standard, especially during a pandemic.

READ | 'Absolute nonsense' - Expert responds to Mogoeng's claims about experimental Covid-19 vaccines

Contradictory messaging (examples such as Dr. Salim Karim and Glenda Gray), the bans on alcohol and tobacco, police and army brutality, ministerial violations of stay-at-home orders, confused and contradictory messaging from Ministers, jaded and uninspiring "family meeting" public communication, corruption at the highest levels of government (even involving food parcels, safety equipment and Covid messaging), poorly handled conspiracy theories and a litany of regular scandals all but destroyed what was left of the credibility of a government that was just emerging from the "nine wasted years" scandal. The effect of poverty on this situation was similarly not handled as efficiently as could have been the case. 

In an already polarised society, the government failed to create even a temporary sense of cohesion, of national unity, and the only occasional spark of such emotion seemed to have been generated by isolated instances of anti-government sentiments. The overall poor handling of the message itself has now led to an environment where, as our guidelines have predicted, disinformation and misinformation (or the "infodemic", to use the words of Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation) have seemingly equal currency and credibility among certain groups, with the result of increased polarisation, possible workplace instability and a low vaccination rate.

Loss of credibility 

The results of this loss of credibility and message mismanagement has arguably further caused the government loss of support in the recent local general elections.  This then leads to increasingly tricky obstacles in persuading society of potentially unpopular and contentious future decisions and sacrifices that must be made.

This leads to further instability, which in turn leads to further fear and polarisation. And so the cycle of conflict gets more entrenched and more difficult to break out of. Those who benefit from our dysfunctionality and disunity grow stronger.  

READ | Covid-19: Top scientist warns of SA's complacency as excess deaths near 250 000

With South Africa facing an imminent "fourth wave" of Covid, with some uncertainty as to what this entails this time around, what can the government do to at least partially undo this leadership failure and to start undoing the conflict cycles that we see developing?

For one, they can approach the challenge in a more organised manner. The research we have dealt with shows that there is a structure, a science to getting this crisis message management right. Start doing those basics right, even if it is very late in the day.

Throughout the Covid journey so far, our scientists have repeatedly shown themselves to be of the highest international calibre, so listen to them, involve them even more in decision making, and learn to accurately and timeously deal with the message they have to share with us. Stop with the factional behaviour and try to generate that invaluable sense of national unity. Be more efficient in dealing with conspiracy theories. Understand the difference between fact-based persuasion and identity or value-based debates. Learn to use the right tools to persuade people in crucial areas such as vaccination and prevention behaviour. Try to rebuild your integrity, earn our trust. Start caring for the nation in tangible, measurable ways. 

And, of course, remind us that, as individuals and groups, we also have an important contribution to make in all of this. 

- Andre Vlok is a negotiator, conflict and employment dispute specialist and based in Port Elizabeth.

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