A conference organized by the World Health Organization is shining a light on science communication during public health emergencies, and the COVID-19 pandemic is the ultimate test case.
Alberta may now be fully reopened, but the pandemic reinforced how critical communication is during a public health crisis, where one person’s actions can affect not only their health but the health of everyone around them.
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The virtual conference took place in June and takeaways included having open communication when there is uncertainty so people do not lose trust in science, ensuring dialogue with different communities as opposed to a “one-size-fits-all” approach, as well as sharing information on different platforms and channels.
Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa, said a lesson learned from the SARS crisis was the need for greater transparency and better communication overall.
But he said during the COVID-19 pandemic, that did not happen.
“We failed sublimely across all jurisdictions, not just in Canada — globally.”
“One of the reasons for that is we forgot who we were talking to and the level of panic that needs to be dressed and assessed,” he said.
Deonandan cites how previously public health messaging, such as advertisements showing diseased lungs on cigarette boxes, tried to cajole people into acting a certain way. But times — and technology — have changed.
“Now in the social media era, we have a problem with people mistrusting public authority in general,” he said.
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“We have failed in communicating the facts. We have failed in understanding people digest the facts differently. We have failed in understanding the different demographics need to be talked to in different ways.”
John Shiga, a science communication researcher at Ryerson University, said the pandemic was challenging because scientific research was being done at the same time that people were trying to figure out how to manage, respond to and communicate about the pandemic.
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For instance, guidelines evolved on masking, which vaccine is recommended for which age group and what is or is not safe to do.
“It was definitely a difficult environment,” he said.
Mary Anne Moser, CEO of the Telus Spark Science Centre and founder of the Banff Science Communication Program, said science communication during the pandemic was “fascinating to watch.”
“We were seeing, played out before us, a really fundamental misunderstanding that people, in general, have about the scientific process,” she said.
“For the public, it looked like science was changing its mind and coming up with contradictory recommendations, flip-flopping on issues. That’s how science is done. It’s always about changing your position based on new information.”
However, Shiga worries all of that has hurt public trust in decision-makers.
“Political leaders kept reminding Canadians that the decisions were being made, the guidelines were based on scientific evidence and research. But there were points in the pandemic where policy was taking a different turn that was not in line with what epidemiologists and other kinds of experts were saying,” he said.
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There is also the issue of sharing correct information. Premier Jason Kenney tweeted out inaccurate vaccination statistics Monday night; he later tweeted out a correction, saying there had been a miscalculation from Alberta Health.
“By accident, he adds fuel to the fire of the misinformation, disinformation campaign,” Deonandan said.
“The damage is bad. It’s bad. It suggests public health has to do more to not just combat the pandemic but to overcome the damage being done by sloppy communication.”
People’s emotions were also heightened during the long months of the pandemic, and Moser said it’s important that communicators meet the public where they are at.
“They are encountering scientific information emotionally. They’re encountering it with their whole self. They already think something,” she said.
“That’s one of the reasons why it felt like a maelstrom, that it felt like there was no clarity. Some of that clarity is in the way people interpret the same information.”
The experts said the ways to improve science communication include more science education, more publicly accessible scientists and finding common ground with people.
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