September 9, 2020, by Brigitte Nerlich
Who killed granny?
A trend seems to be emerging, albeit not a failsafe one, in the management of the coronavirus pandemic. There are countries/nations/regions like New Zealand, Germany and New Mexico (and these are just the ones I sort of listen in to) that have done something right when it comes to dealing with the spread of Covid-19. And then there are countries like the United Kingdom, or rather England, where dealing with the spread of Covid-19 has been a bit of a mess.
The difference seems to be that in some countries the focus has been on communication, consistency and collaboration between government and citizens, and, underpinning all that, a certain measure of mutual trust, at least in a large proportion of the population.
Communication, instructions and encouragements
This morning, in the context of rising Covid-19 infections in the UK, I was thinking about Matt Hancock’s blame-shifting instruction to young people not to kill their gran, granny or rather their grandparents. This is not a good communication strategy. It is neither consistent or congruent with what young people have been told to do by the government (go out and shop and eat), and neither is it based on teamwork between policy makers and the general public. On the contrary, citizens are receiving ‘instructions’ (don’t kill your gran) that cannot be obeyed without falling foul of earlier instructions, exhortations or encouragements given by the government to do other, risky, things.
While I was musing about this, I read a tweet by Christina Pagel. She said: “I was also asked on @SkyNews about where we might be headed this autumn… afraid I wasn’t super cheery. BUT *If* we got a superb test & trace system working & *excellent* messaging on social distancing etc then we could, maybe, turn it around without lockdowns.”
Is that likely? The indications are that it’s not. Both communication and testing have been a shambles, in England in particular, since the beginning of the pandemic. Despite this, ‘social distancing’ as a new norm for social conduct gradually embedded itself in social life in the spring of this year. Indeed it did so despite the fact that the Prime Minister Boris Johnson avoided that phrase in his early press conferences.
Communication, rules and behaviour
Rusi Jaspal and I have undertaken a careful media analysis of social distancing for the earlier part of this year (book chapter in the making) and found one overall theme that structured discussions of social distancing, namely a critique of government prevarication, complacency and confusion.
This was problematic in a situation where a government attempted to bring a pandemic under control and wanted its citizens to comply with new rules of life. Some of the confusion was related to a clash in communication styles, with tough and strong, even war-like language on the one hand, which contradicted, at least initially, with the hesitant roll out of social distancing measures, shrouded in imprecise and vague language on the other.
Communication and consequences
Now the situation is slightly different. We still have confusion and mixed messages – more than that, the messages change and vary almost every day in different ways in different places. We also have a breakdown of an already fragile trust after the Cummings affair and alleged breaches of lockdown. A quick read of some newspaper articles from May reveals the use of a lot of negative words such as ‘breach’, ‘break’, ‘damage’, ‘erode’, ‘undermine’, ‘trash’… rules, trust, government etc.
In August the government actively pushed people into situations where social distancing rules almost have to be broken: getting back to restaurants and bars, eating out, getting back to work, getting back to school, getting back to university. Those who follow the government lead and go to bars, work, uni etc. also go home at some point of course, and when doing that they might encounter granny.
Now, it might so happen that subsequently granny dies of Covid-19. The question then is: Who killed granny? Who is to blame and who should take responsibility?
How we answer these questions will tell us something about how we are managing the pandemic and what role communication, science, politics and individual and collective behaviour play in this.