New research on pandemic communications from nine democracies reveals pioneering methods for reaching citizens and supporting public health.

Wise societies learn from others. In one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s daily press conferences on April 2, he said that “we’ve learned a lot from South Korea, Singapore, and other countries. We’ve learned unfortunately a lot from Italy as well in terms of what worked and what didn’t work there.”

As case counts rise rapidly in many Canadian provinces, we should take lessons from jurisdictions that have prevented case counts from spiraling out of control. Mask-wearing is an obvious example in which many countries, including Canada, learned from places like South Korea and Taiwan far too slowly.

Federal and provincial officials might also look abroad to improve their public health communications. Risk communication is an effective non-pharmaceutical intervention for COVID-19. Others include movement restrictions, physical distancing and the use of personal protective equipment. But health communications, while critical, are frequently under-resourced or neglected by decision-makers.

We spent the last six months studying the COVID-19 communications of nine democracies on five continents: Canada, South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, Senegal, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. We pored over social media posts and video livestreams in eight languages, public health messaging plans, speeches and briefings from public officials, and more. Our new report, published by UBC’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, reveals that democracies around the world have pioneered ways of communicating about COVID-19 that reach diverse populations, increase compliance with public health measures, and even strengthen democratic norms and institutions.

The countries we studied did many things right. They created a clear division of labour among their communicators. They left science communication to public health experts. And they incorporated emotions and values to give meaning to the pandemic. Crucially, effective communications strategies helped jurisdictions like New Zealand and South Korea limit small outbreaks and avoid uncontrolled community spread.

Take Senegal, for instance, which shows that tailored communications created by community leaders can be more effective than formal top-down guidelines. The Senegalese government has regularly cooperated with religious leaders, using social media to share posts by imams and priests and producing videos in which they are washing their hands and avoiding large gatherings. Although Islam is the country’s largest religion, messaging has addressed both Muslims and Christians. Drawing in members of civil society and attending to local needs, as Senegal has done with its communications strategy, helped lead the nation to its enviable position near the top of Foreign Policy magazine’s ranking of the world’s best COVID responses – ahead of Canada.

In a July interview, Canadian Health Minister Patty Hajdu acknowledged that reaching the country’s diverse population was an ongoing challenge. Why not look to New Zealand, where Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (equipped with an undergraduate degree in communications) has been using official channels to communicate informally and address the concerns of different groups?

Ardern’s “Conversations through COVID” Zoom talk show series includes a children’s musician, female Indigenous scholars, and experts in mental health. She also answers public questions using Facebook Live video-streaming. When New Zealand experienced a second outbreak of COVID-19 in August, Ardern had tools at her disposal for communicating clearly and swiftly to citizens about what to expect and how to act. New Zealanders knew where to turn for reliable information and they understood what was required of them. Following several weeks of stringent measures in Auckland, the outbreak was controlled, and the country returned to normal.

From South Korea, Canadians could take notes on creating a rapid-response epidemic control system that integrates communications. During the 2015 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak, South Korea’s lacklustre response and unclear communications fostered anxiety among the public. The system was reformed: South Korea’s Centres for Disease Control now house an Office of Communication, designed to prevent misinformation. During COVID-19, communications were effective and efficient because channels of distribution (for instance, an emergency text message system) already existed.

Since 2016, this Office of Communication has recruited members of the general public to assess and guide its messaging strategies. South Korean compliance with public health guidelines in 2020 is far greater than it was during MERS, demonstrating that institutionalization can also expand capacity to measure, understand and respond to public sentiment during a pandemic, including on social media.

Finally, Taiwan reminds us that public health communications rely on equitable access to information infrastructure. Alongside communicating via multiple social media and traditional media channels, the Taiwanese government has spent millions to improve cellular and internet services in remote areas.

While 94 percent of Canadians have access to internet at home, many lack reliable and fast broadband connectivity. On October 1, the Liberal government committed $2 billion to provide broadband for 750,000 homes and businesses in under-served communities. This should be rolled out as swiftly as possible along with other measures considered to improve access, such as reducing Internet costs.

Clear communications matter at the beginning of a pandemic when dramatic public health measures have to be explained and understood. But, as British Columbia’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry recently noted, COVID-19 will likely be with us for years to come. Caseloads are rising again and there are worrying signs of compliance (and compassion) fatigue. If democracies don’t communicate well with citizens over the long haul, our remarkable work together will have been for naught.

Of course, communications are no pandemic panacea. Testing and contact-tracing are essential. States also need imaginative policies to address the economic fallout. But it has become too easily forgotten that clear, consistent, compassionate and democratically minded communications are a public health intervention, too. Although frequently neglected, communications offer a relatively cheap and highly effective path to engaging citizens. Canada ignores lessons from around the world at its peril.

Photo: A technician works as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Government officials provide an update on the COVID-19 pandemic during a press conference in Ottawa on  Oct. 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick.