I woke up earlier this week to find a piece of click-bait in my news feed (yes, I fell for it and clicked). The article proclaimed that “Social Distancing did not actually decrease the number of COVID-19 infections in the United States.”
Once I got past my emotional response to the headline, I realized that the entire communications ecosystem surrounding physical distancing has been focused on prevention, not mitigation. And, for the most part, it has not been that effective.
What does “Flattening the Curve” actually mean?
Messaging has been “stay home, and you won’t get sick,” and “wear a mask, and you won’t get sick.” I think a more honest approach would have been “… and you may not get sick right now.” The entire purpose of flattening the curve is to protect hospital and critical care capacity. The goal is to spread out the number of patients so that they don’t require care at the same time and overwhelm the system. If you look at the typical graphic used to demonstrate flattening the curve, it is the intensity of the pandemic that is reduced, not the overall number of cases. Effective flattening results in a lower peak, but longer duration. The number of infections represented is the same. This is important knowledge. So why then, isn’t anybody talking about it?
What is actually being communicated
It seems to me that the lack of understanding regarding “flattening the curve” can be traced back to a failure to effectively talk about the concept. Everything is focused on the peaks, the “sexy bits”. Showering us with data about the numbers and intensity of infections and deaths, not on what those numbers might actually mean in the context of managing the crisis. There are very few voices actually talking bout how complex that management effort is. Those that do are making a valiant attempt at introducing the contextual elements to actually translate the data into usable knowledge. Those attempts are being lost in the rest of the media storm. Everything is boiled down to a sound bite or a headline. Oversimplified and generalized statements presented as if the answers are all there and are apparent if the reader/listener was only smart enough to recognize them.
Contributing to that is an observation that the communications strategy around COVID-19 has devolved to the point of revolving clichés. The majority of media reports that I am seeing, across both traditional and alternative Media sources, seem to be repeating variations of two emotional points of view. Either “they overreacted, go back to what you did before,” or “just do what you’re told and everything will be fine.” I’m not finding much actual substance beyond the emotional rhetoric. A more useful approach would focus on informing people about the real risk of infection and why they need to take protective actions. “So you don’t get sick” doesn’t count.
Albert Einstein is attributed with describing genius as taking the complex and making it simple.
I don’t think we are living up to his standard.
Any parent knows “because I said so” is not an effective way to get another person to behave in the desired way. That seems to be the overall message being put out there. This continued failure in communication is one factor feeding the loss of trust in leadership and the growing resistance to continued social distancing. Fixing it is probably the only way to effectively mitigate the civil unrest that we are starting to see across the country.
It appears that the people who actually understand the risks don’t know how to effectively communicate their message. Or they do not have a loud enough voice to be heard over the “it’s nothing” and “just behave” crowds.
What do you think? How would you change the Crisis Communications going on right now to try and recover from the mess that we have put ourselves in?