With confirmed worldwide coronavirus infections now growing at more than 50,000 per day, there’s still no end in sight for the spread of the pandemic in most of the world. However, it appears that a small number of countries have successfully turned the corner and have gotten the outbreak under control, at least for now. In each instance, the importance of clear, frequent and transparent crisis communication has been central to the strategy.
Experts are looking to China, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan as four bellwethers of early success. The number of new cases reported by the Chinese government has dwindled to almost zero in recent days. Singapore has reported 509 cases but just two deaths and growth is slow. New infection reports have also dwindled in Taiwan where only two of the 195 infected people have died. South Korea was hit hard in early March but is steadily reducing the number of reported new infections while its 1.3% death rate is well below average.
China has built-in advantages in controlling the movements of people. That isn’t the case with the other three countries. Taiwan and South Korea are representative democracies. Singapore’s government enjoys a high level of public trust although it isn’t reluctant to impose harsh penalties for noncompliance with mandates, notes Dale Fisher, Infection Control Chair at the island nation’s National University Hospital.
A few elements were common to each country’s containment strategy: rapid response, extensive testing, travel restrictions, tightly enforced quarantine rules and extensive communication. It also helped that some had prior experience with pandemics such as the SARS outbreak in 2003, creating a citizenry that is already sensitized to the risks of a pandemic.
Each country employed a “layered strategy,” in which a variety of tactics were applied in different combinations with each other depending upon the severity of the outbreak in different regions.
Singapore used enforced home quarantines and exhaustive contact tracing, even to the point of photographing groups of people so that the government could quickly identify who had been in contact with an infected person in the photo. The country’s home quarantine restrictions include frequent phone checks by government officials as well as SMS texts that require recipients to respond with the location of their phone for tracking purposes. Interestingly, Singapore was the only country of the four not to close schools.
South Korea opted for early and aggressive testing, focusing on targeted groups with high infection rates. It also had an exhaustive contact tracking program, according to The Guardian.
Taiwan also tests heavily as well as issuing travel alerts, employing military personnel in mask production and instituting strong penalties for hoarding, spreading misinformation, and disobeying quarantine orders.
In short, successful governments acted early, clamped down heavily and waited for the infection curve to flatten before easing restrictions.
Text Early, Text Often
Each country also communicated openly and often, with text messaging figuring prominently in their communication strategies. Short messaging service (SMS) is particularly effective in Asia where cell phone usage is almost ubiquitous. Texting has the unique advantage of enabling governments to reliably deliver messages to citizens with a high likelihood that they’ll be seen. Some services even enable authorities to target messages to targeted regions, such as a one-mile radius around an outbreak.
The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the need for governments and large organizations to hone their crisis communication skills. Focus on facts rather than conjecture, writes Tracy Brower in Forbes. Be clear because people in a state of agitation are less able to grasp nuance.
Repeat messages often, she recommends. There’s no guarantee people saw them the first time. Show compassion, acknowledge discomfort but also project leadership because people thrive when they have direction.
“Put yourself in your constituents’ shoes to understand their anxiety,” adds Parul Argenti of Dartmouth College in the Harvard Business Review. “You will sometimes get it right, and you will often get it wrong, but it is still better to be as transparent as you can.” Other words of wisdom: Be concise, explain why decisions were made and communicate no less than every other day.
Coronavirus deepens the need for connection, writes Everbridge CEO David Meredith in the Falls Church News-Press. “The public must be kept informed with calm and clear guidance, plans and facts, rather than being left to filter through the overwhelming amount of sometimes contradictory data found on the Internet and other forms of media.”
Communication needs to come from trusted sources, and sometimes that means enlisting help on the ground. Writing in Forbes, Bruce Y. Lee tells how the government of Liberia overcame its citizens’ entrenched distrust of government when the Ebola outbreak struck by enlisting intermediaries who lived in the same villages as the people they are trying to reach.
Those people became the foot soldiers for the prevention campaign, even going door to door to answer questions. Surveys conducted after the crisis had passed found that people who had been subjects of this “mediated outreach” were significantly more likely to support disease control policies, practice good prevention techniques and trust the country’s Ministry of Health.