Fear in a crisis

Fear in a crisis

Graphic Credit:  Patt Fallon, Bald Designs

If you are not on lockdown or self-isolating, you need only walk into a supermarket to get up to speed with how things are developing with the public health emergency sweeping the globe. Shelves stripped bare of mainly cleaning products, cupboard essentials and frozen pizzas.  And toilet rolls.  Lots of them.

What has happened to that famous WW2 slogan “Keep calm and carry on”?  This lack of a calm response is not exclusive to the UK either.  My cousin in New York confirmed the same there, and we have also seen it on mainland Europe. These scenes are the result of an emotional trigger that releases fear, and this is something I am very adept at recognising.

I was the NATO-led military peacekeeping mission spokesperson in Sarajevo through the build-up and during the NATO-led operations in Kosovo 21 years ago.  Everyone was scared the fragile Dayton Peace Accords would crumble and the ethnic-driven civil conflict would return.  It took a combination of publicly showing visible support on the ground; clear, transparent and empathetic messaging to address public fears; and closely monitoring their reaction and response.  Then self-correct and adjust the approach where the public response posed a risk to the secure status of the country.

In the UK, the public service sectors dealing with this unprecedented situation on the ground are clearly doing their very best in these extraordinarily challenging circumstances: healthcare workers, social services and those doing their best to help businesses and individuals facing immediate hardship. A big shout-out too to the supermarkets and all those behind the food chain: the haulage, shipping and airport companies, suppliers, growers and farmers.  They also have a vital role on the ground.  But they all need a ‘keep calm and carry on’ approach from the public, albeit under a new set of guidelines that may change daily.

Drawing on my experience in Sarajevo, and a few years later with the foot and mouth epidemic in the UK, keeping calm and helping vital services function under this strain in these extraordinary times is key in helping promote public safety and save lives.  This is primarily the responsibility of three main stakeholder groups – all with inter-connected obligations:

Governments:    It has been said before by many: governments must provide very clear direction on what to do – and what not to do.  Medical and public health advice messaging related to handwashing and recognising symptoms is generally consistent and clear throughout the world, thanks to the dissemination of the WHO guidelines. Thereafter, individual sovereign state guidance varies in relation to self-isolation, testing, travel movements, social activity and border closures.

There is a fine line between being truthful and transparent about the crisis and underscoring the risks and being prepared for self-isolation and lockdowns. When not handled correctly, this creates fear and panic, as well as confusion, political opportunism, economic hardship, and, in some cases, increases the risk of transmission by transferring decision-making responsibility to individuals.

In times of crisis, people need and expect sound, well thought-out CLEAR DIRECTION and, more importantly, feel reassured and respond well – particularly when delivered by credible, authoritative experts.

Media: This is undoubtedly the biggest story after 9/11 any news outlet has had to report this century. It truly is an exceptional and sensational set of circumstances and we are seeing an almost frenzied sensationalism with many (but not all) media outlets.  This is contributing hugely to people being fearful.

It is the media’s job to find out the facts, challenge the gaps on behalf of their readers, viewers or listeners and report a balanced perspective.  When that gap cannot be filled by one source, they find another.  What we have seen is a deluge of information which journalists have had to pick through, analyse and evaluate. Where there is ambiguity, that analysis becomes subjective.  Where there is lack of clarity, it creates confusion.

In times of crisis, the media also need information that is clear and concise, and they have a responsibility to both inform and help reassure the public – more so in a fast moving situation.  Far more people are recovering from COVID-19, yet only the daily death rates are reported, thereby contributing to public fear and panic.  Reporting the daily recovery and hospital discharge figures would provide perspective.  Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson and the UK Health Minister have all recovered, along with thousands more.

In this situation more than ever, there needs to be a shift away from the “If it bleeds, it leads” hysteria and panic-inducing sensationalism.

The COVID-19 media reporting must be in PERSPECTIVE by covering facts to help mitigate the risk of escalating the spread of the disease; providing objective and relevant news and commentary; and reinforcing the need for a collective public response.

General Public:  As the current crisis is unfolding, it is clear how government messaging and media reporting correlate directly with how the general public are reacting and behaving.  Despite multiple countries appealing for people not to panic-buy, they continue to do so. Also, the social distancing message is also getting a patchy response. This is the impact of government messaging and media reporting, and is the new reality of how people are chosing to adapt their daily routine and behaviour.

The scale of the current crisis requires a shift in thinking for many.  This will be new to some: from working from home and singing from balconies to looking out for elderly neighbours and helping with community efforts.  Teamwork is highly effective, and a unified, pragmatic effort is required to ensure our hard-pressed public services are not overwhelmed and our supermarkets can feed ALL the population.  The general public need to feel reassured: only those managing and reporting the crisis can provide that assurance.

Each member of the public has a personal responsibility to ‘do their bit’ and should simply FOLLOW THE MOST UP-TO-DATE OFFICIAL GUIDANCE and, most importantly, stop panic-buying.

As Tom Hanks said on his social media accounts a couple of days ago, “We are all in this together”.  Everyone needs to remember these five sage words next time they announce, report or read the news.


Useful Links:

WHO country and technical guidance: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/technical-guidance

WHO myth busters about COVID-19:  https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/myth-busters

Center for Disease Control , USA - How to protect Yourself:  https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/prevention.html

National Health Service England on symptoms and guidance on what to do:  https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19

Bald Designs:  https://www.balddesigns.com



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