Simple, direct messaging from officials is necessary to clear up confusion about shifting public health restrictions amid skyrocketing COVID-19 infections in Canada, experts in health and communications say.
At the same time, officials need to be realistic when conveying the risks posed by the pandemic to ensure residents understand how they need to behave to curb the spread of the virus, they said.
“It seems like the administrations have completely forgotten how to do health communication,” said Jessica Mudry, an associate professor who specializes in public health communication at Ryerson University.
In Ontario in particular, a new colour-coded system for COVID-19 restrictions has been met with skepticism from health experts and has raised questions among residents and businesses trying to figure out what is and isn’t allowed.
Mudry said current messaging has failed to reach people who could change their behaviour but are resistant to doing so, noting that most residents don’t watch press conferences from officials that are held in the middle of the day.
“All of this stuff can be changed,” she said, pointing to engaging graphics used in nutrition and anti-smoking campaigns, and catchy pandemic-themed jingles on the social media platform TikTok as creative tactics that could be employed.
When it comes to balancing the need for restrictions to be taken seriously with messages of optimisim, experts said officials need to be honest with residents.
Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s top doctor, suggested this week that some regions could be in “the green” zone for pandemic restrictions by Christmas if the situation improves. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also dangled the promise of Christmas gatherings as recently as last week.
Paul Knox, a retired professor of journalism at Ryerson University, said promises about hypothetical scenarios are not going to be effective at this point.
“Any attempt … to suggest that there are timelines that might offer one option or the other is really futile,” Knox said. “What needs to happen right now, I think, is a very clear message.”
In order for that message to be heard, Knox said, “politicians have to make up their minds” about how to manage the pandemic, even if that means difficult choices and shutting down businesses to save lives.
Colin Furness, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, said fear during the “apocalyptically scary” first wave of COVID-19 in March led to fairly good compliance with public health rules.
After a summer of loosened restrictions that encouraged people to frequent restaurants, bars and malls, Furness said the current return to “stay home” advice has naturally confused people, especially in Ontario where he said the government is trying to support businesses during the pandemic.
“When you turn around and say, ‘Oh, the sky is falling, you’ve got to stay home. Everything’s still open, but you’ve got to stay home’ – I mean, the messaging couldn’t possibly be more confused,” Furness said.
Furness nonetheless noted that compliance has been fairly good when it comes to prevention measures that have sunk in, like wearing masks in public.
“People use the term ‘COVID fatigue.’ I don’t really like that term, because it suggests that people just don’t have the stamina,” he said. “No, I think people have been worn down by confusing messaging.”
A simple public education campaign talking about how COVID spreads is what’s needed, he said.
He also noted that “personal responsibility” messages from politicians like Ontario Premier Doug Ford can only go so far when many people who have become infected at work or in long-term care homes do not have the agency to protect themselves.
Shifting public health restrictions are also confusing to the business community, with restaurants owners frustrated that officials have allowed them to stay open while urging potential patrons to stay home.
“It’s kind of the worst of both worlds,” said James Rillett, vice president of Restaurants Canada.
Rillett noted that businesses are trying to comply with the rules, but those rules aren’t explained fully or presented in a centralized, accessible way. The industry group created its own webpage for operators summarizing Ontario’s new regional guidelines, but it hasn’t cleared up many lingering questions about what’s permitted and what isn’t.
“I talk to four or five independent operators every day that simply aren’t getting it,” he said. “I think governments forget sometimes that people who aren’t immersed in it 24 hours a day sometimes have trouble keeping up.”
The same is true for regular citizens who want to comply with the rules but aren’t being reached directly by officials, said Jaskaran Sandhu.
The public affairs professional based in Brampton, Ont., said the region that’s become a hot spot for infections has been neglected by officials when it comes to on-the-ground outreach about the pandemic.
Work of contextualizing guidelines has fallen to communities themselves, Sandhu said. He has worked with the World Sikh Organization to contextualize COVID-19 best practices for gurdwaras, places of worship for Sikhs that also function as community centres.
“It’s like this invisible work that’s happening in the community that gets no credit, which makes it really frustrating when you keep hearing from folks, ‘Well, you know, these communities and Brampton don’t actually care,’” he said.