Australia Leaders can still build our trust to fight the virus - here's how

03:15  26 march  2020
03:15  26 march  2020 Source:   watoday.com.au

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To get through this pandemic with deaths prevented and civil society intact, the government will need an unprecedented level of trust and co-operation. Right now, trust is on a knife-edge caused by early communication problems and opaque decision processes, along with the uncertainty of the pandemic.

There is still time to build public trust. Any leader communicating about COVID-19 can adopt some concrete strategies that will help to bring people along.

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First, competent and skilled communicators show and model empathy. This is largely missing from the Prime Minister's media conferences dominated by a castigating tone. On Sunday this escalated into him presenting ramped-up social-distancing measures as punishment instead of as contributions to public health.

Pictures: Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in Australia

Empathy cannot be achieved with call-centre-like scripts of "I understand how you feel". To be genuine, it must comprehend and reflect the daily issues of diverse groups. For the fearful health care workers it might be, "We are hearing from clinicians in hospitals that they are deeply concerned about access to personal protective equipment" or "I was visiting an Aboriginal community last week and they are concerned about their risk from COVID-19. I am too".

The second strategy is to communicate early and often. There have been daily case counts and announcements of actions. However, from February when it was evident that coronavirus would arrive in Australia and health services were already preparing, the public was not told how to prepare. They figured it out anyway and followed with another common behaviour in health emergencies - early over-reactions. This took the form of the anxiety buying that is now entrenched and harming people's access to vital resources.

Third, leaders should tolerate these early over-reactions and not panic about panic. Instead, they should provide people with a sense of what to expect - by being honest, frank and open. There is still an opportunity to prepare people for the coming months and to help them imagine what it might be like. Managing expectations is now vital. People's rising anxiety is clear as they watch Australia's curve continue its upward trajectory.

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Regardless of what is done today, that curve will rise over the coming weeks. It may begin to bend as we see impacts of the travel restrictions in a week or so, or it may not and then we will need even stronger measures. Hospitals are very likely to see an overwhelming demand, maybe in April or May, maybe earlier or later. There may be difficult decisions about prioritising intensive care beds and other scarce resources. Health officials have the tools to prepare for these decisions and are doing so right now. The public should have more insight, even a say in some of these processes, and should also be empowered with planning tools.

Early on, there was scant detail on what evidence informed the escalation of COVID-19 control measures. Government are enacting a pandemic planning infrastructure that has been in place for more than a decade. They rely on a public health workforce whose core business is disease prevention and managing outbreaks. A window into these assets would reveal a large cadre of professionals working around the clock to do contact tracing, fact sheet writing, inter-sector liaison, health service planning, and many other roles. Frank communication will admit where things have gone wrong and what is being done to address it.

The public know that the government may need to intensify physical distancing measures. The government should communicate the triggers for these; how those decisions are made; and what is deliberated. Now that family members are stranded overseas, venues are closed, and parents try to manage children learning at home, there is an undefined waiting game. Knowing when that finishes is next to impossible, but knowing the triggers for reversing these measures is. What will cause schools now closed to re-open; travel restrictions to be lifted; people to re-open their clubs? Being mentally primed helps people to support the shifts when they occur and will reduce the risk of politics getting in the way.

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Our leaders need to take the public into their confidence in a way that will feel uncomfortable and new for some. They will need to constantly communicate the uncertainty and limitations of the knowledge behind decisions. People dislike uncertainty but a perception of obfuscation is worse because it diminishes trust.

We need better feedback loops. The financial crisis and world wars showed the more resilient institutions and nations could hear back from key groups about the measures, and what unanticipated new risks they brought.

Using knowledge from decades of research in risk communication and behavioural science could make some crucial differences now. Governments need evidence behind their messages. We would not roll-out a new vaccine without testing it first. Yet among the millions of dollars already dedicated to pandemic research this year, none has been visibly earmarked for informing communications and behaviour change.

Trust arrives on foot and leaves on horseback. Leaders should maintain public trust with transparency and good communication backed by evidence. Doing so will bring people through this challenge and out the other side. It will literally save lives.

Professor Julie Leask is an expert in risk communication with the Susan Wakil School of Nursing andMidwifery in the University of Sydney's Faculty of Medicine and Health

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Message from president who led the Ebola fight .
Liberia's ex-President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says the world must conquer fear to deal with coronavirus.The BBC asked the Nobel Peace Laureate for her reflections on the current coronavirus crisis.

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