Photo: Mikael Seegen/Unsplash.
On March 24, India entered a nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. Thus far, the virus has infected more than two million people around the world.
In these circumstances, timely and good-quality treatment is only one of two of the most important resources. Information is the other, especially information that reaches those who need it most.
The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the value of good science communication at all levels – by the government, individual scientists and journalists – and how people’s lives depend on it. It has highlighted a longstanding problem that both amateur and professional science communicators have been grappling with, about the best way to communicate verified information during a crisis when lives and livelihoods are at stake.
Risk communication is the process of informing people about potential hazards to their lives, property and/or environment. It is a science-based approach for communicating effectively in situations marked by high stress, anxiety and/or controversy. Properly communicating risk requires the communicator to understand people’s perceptions, concerns and beliefs as well as the contexts in which and the practices through which they play out. Finally, it warrants early identification and management of rumours, misinformation and other sources of confusion.
Information about the spread and risks of the pandemic has been rapidly evolving. For example, we need a large amount of verified information to clearly answer questions like ‘what is the pathogen?’, ‘how does it spread?’, ‘what kind of masks should we use?’, etc. And in case physical distancing fails: ‘Is the state or country equipped to treat a large number of infected people?’ and ‘do citizens have enough information to make informed choices?’.
Evidently, not all these questions have been answered to everyone’s satisfaction, especially given the staggered nature of the spread of the pandemic as well as knowledge associated with it. There are two reasons why. First: The information required to make definitive recommendations has been evolving rapidly, obviously because our scientific and sociological understanding of the disease has been dynamic as well. Second: Even when there is verified information, governments around the world have been slow to react because of – among other things – lack of foresight, lack of resources and, in some cases, a restrictive bureaucracy.
Such uncertainty, and the resulting missteps, are a part of complex real world crises, like a pandemic. To effectively convey useful and mission-critical information in such circumstances, risk communication must be anchored in the fundamentals of communication theory.
According to communication theory, there are five elements of risk communication: the sender, the message, the receiver, medium and feedback. Science communicators must also contend with how each of these elements is warped by the realities of research and the society. To elevate their message beyond the forces of fear and confusion, communicators need to consider the sender’s trustworthiness, curtail the spread of misinformation, address the diversity of the intended audience and the timeline of messaging, and use feedback well.
Let’s go through them one by one.
All good science communication is founded on acknowledging the complexity and changing nature of science. To do this, communicators must establish trust with their audience with precise and actionable science communication in low-risk situations.
Trust is very valuable. However, non-expert readers (assuming we’re talking about newspapers and such) have only been trusting experts, and their expertise, less of late. An important part of any strategy that seeks to regain this trust should be institutes acting in the public interest to professionally train and then hire science communicators. Clear identities, unimpeachable affiliations and unquestionable motives should be the gold-standard.
Different communication strategies have led to the pandemic playing out differently in various parts of the world. However, all these scenarios have one thing in common: the spread and persistence of misinformation.
The case of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) is a fitting example. Can we be certain if HCQ can cure or prevent COVID-19? No, because a) the virus is new, b) we don’t know enough about the diseases it causes (COVID-19), and c) we haven’t tested HCQ’s efficacy and safety against COVID-19. The absence of all this information has left a vacuum that various actors have plugged with misinformation.
Overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis, the people need coherent, lucid and actionable messages. Abstract ideas and jargon only make messages less effective, no matter how well-intentioned the use. Above all, the message must acknowledge any unavoidable real world uncertainties. The key is to inform, not instruct. Any steps taken in response to the crisis must be communicated well in advance and repeated appropriately, so that those affected can prepare in time to ensure their well-being.
Risk communication often has to provide reliable and effective information that’s still relevant to diverse audiences, especially in a country like India. This means accounting for a bewildering variety of experiences, languages and literacy levels, as well as age, income, socio-cultural identity, beliefs and disability. To be compassionate and empathetic, any effort must acknowledge the people’s hopes and fears. Given these requirements, how can we ensure the message is inclusive? How do we stay mindful of existing inequities and disparities without also hemming our message in too much?
A prime example is how messages about mask use have to be different depending on who the messages are intended for: the non-expert or the healthcare worker. The non-expert needs a (relatively) basic level of protection that can be afforded by the judicious use of masks and practice of physical distancing. On the other hand, hospital and emergency care workers are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and need to be familiar with all protective protocols and equipment.
The ultimate goal of risk communication should be, to the extent possible, to provide people the agency to decide what’s best for them. For this, communicators must place the people’s identities, experiences and social contexts first. Communicators should also actively identify, incorporate and amplify representative voices from marginalised communities to reach less accessible audiences.
To save lives during a pandemic caused by a virus that’s a ‘fast spreader, moderate killer’, speed is of the essence. Does the chosen medium allow for the most reach while minimising the amount of time required to use it? The first step to solving this problem is to identify what the people prefer. Local groups are connected mostly via social media (esp. Facebook) and messaging platforms like WhatsApp. So to fight misinformation among them, the antidote of verified information must be shared on these platforms as well, and with sufficient volume and frequency as to drown out misinformation.
More broadly, a diverse audience can be served by republishing the same message in multiple formats. Even more creative approaches include using songs and folk art. The government could commission infographics on mask use for city-dwellers and radio and automated phone messages for non-urban people. Since most science and risk communication in the Indian context fails to adequately consider the diversity of our languages, risk communicators should consider having their messages translated into as many Indian languages as possible.
Finally, how can you make sure your messages are getting through? Feedback is a critical feature of science communication, especially risk communication. This said, it’s difficult to implement real-time feedback mechanisms during an ongoing crisis. But if executed properly, feedback – especially of the constructive variety – can help track whether a message reached its target audience and had the intended impact, in turn allowing the sender to improve their messaging strategies.
One way to do this is to incorporate an intuitive mechanism into the campaign itself. Short questionnaires can help understand what the people are fuzzy about and/or what they’re misunderstanding. Senders should consider testing their strategy with a representative focus group before a messaging campaign begins, to enhance the message’s reception and impact.
The global spread of the new coronavirus plus our efforts to fight it together make a complicated affair, with many moving parts. Researchers around the world have been trying to break the infection process into smaller pieces and study them in laboratories, computer simulations and clinical trials.
Using what they find to then put together useful communiqués for the people is not at all a trivial task, requiring both scientific and socio-cultural acumen. These little bricks will be stacked over and around each other to build the big picture over time, but until the picture’s ready, we must also be careful not to topple them.
The authors would like to acknowledge Abhishek Chari for his inputs.
Siddharth Kankaria works as the SciComm & Outreach Manager for Simons Centre at NCBS, and runs a SciCommSci Club. Shruti Muralidhar is a neuroscientist at MIT. She does science communication as part of IndSciComm.