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It takes a village to beat COVID-19

This pandemic is teaching us all how to cope with true uncertainty. In our well ordered and largely predictable lives it is usually only personal misfortune that brings chaos to that structure.

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The year that changed everything
16 November 2020
Sally Dorsett, David Schmidtchen & Jason Perelson
10mins

Today, globally, nationally, and personally the structured patterns of all our lives have been shattered. As the economist Frank Knight said:

“With uncertainty present, doing things, the actual execution of activity, becomes in a real sense a secondary part of life; the primary problem or function is deciding what to do and how to do it.”

In this pandemic we need a high degree of tolerance for ambiguity and resilience in deciding what we are going to do and how we are going to do it.

In uncertainty, trust, relationships, and community are front of mind.

COVID-19 is frightening and isolating. While we are adapting physically to our new environment, the most important changes will be psychological. Interestingly, we can quickly digitise our communications, but we are missing physical presence of human relationships.

We are discovering that we need the fellowship of other people. In uncertainty, we need community. The people of Italy singing from their balconies to create connection and boost morale during lockdown showed us all that human relationships remain important.

The social capital of a community is built over time through trust, reciprocity, and citizenship. A survivor of the 1918 Spanish Flu, Joe Newman, now 107 years old, reflected on the importance community and relationships:

“You have to be my crutch. I have to be yours. It’s been that way through every crisis we’ve had,” he said. “And then we find, when we do look back, that is what got us through it.”

Our resilience in crisis comes from our sense of community. Today, we live in a socially fragmented society in which individual freedom is prized. We are now re-learning the importance of community and the need to compromise.

In a community we will each need to consent to behaving in ways that limit our personal freedom for the good of the community. This requires each of us to be emotionally engaged in shared outcome. COVID-19 lockdowns restrict our freedoms to achieve the shared outcomes of safeguarding lives and reducing the impact on health services.

Community behaviour has been a central feature in countries where the response to COVID-19 has been better managed. South Korea has emerged as the best example of this. Importantly, it is the community that will need to maintain and adapt behaviour once we move from crisis to recovery to the new normal. Behavioural change across the community will be central to success. Best to build those foundations early.

The community response in Australia was slow. Governments and medical staff became increasingly frustrated by people not behaving in the interests of the community. Large crowds at Bondi and Manly Beaches ignored social distancing and self-isolation. Waverly Mayor, Paula Masselos, was quoted as saying:

“We all need to behave in a safe and responsible manner so that the spread of this virus can be slowed. No one is immune to COVID-19 and behaving irresponsibly puts the entire community at risk.”

Public health messaging is complicated. Sending the wrong message can have devastating consequences. Go too hard and we cause unnecessary anxiety that can take a major psychological toll but go too soft and the consequence can be unnecessary deaths. To date, the messaging has been less than ideal. Too slow, wrong focus, and without strategy.

There also seems to be a reliance on the soft paternalism of behavioural economics. The United Kingdom’s original herd immunity strategy was said to be informed by behavioural economics that worried about ‘behavioural fatigue’.

In the context of COVID-19, we are looking to make profound and rapid changes to community behaviour. This means we will need to work with fabric of community attitudes, norms and behaviours that are already in place. This is not a time for approaches that tinker at the margins of behavioural change.

There are some simple principles that we need hold throughout our community messaging:

  • Engage me. COVID-19 messaging needs to engage the community in the response. Most people want to help, so appeal to their curiosity about how they can help. The recent New Zealand Police Facebook posts engage the community in what is required.
  • Entertain me. Messaging on these topics is going to be with us all for some time. The most memorable engagement will be entertaining. Again, the New Zealand Police are proving to be masters of this approach.
  • Make sense for me. It is difficult to cut through the charts and numbers to find personal meaning in COVID-19, so there is a constant need to demonstrate exactly where and how engaging in different behaviour improves the lives of individuals and the community. The many messages from hospital staff encouraging people to stay at home is a direct and meaningful appeal.
  • Make behaviour the centre of attention. The behaviour we require from the community should always be at the centre of attention in our messaging. It is all too easy to be distracted by the economics, funding stimulus, community transmission, and hospitalisation. Keep my attention on what I need to be doing. Show me what I need to do.
  • Stay alert to the trigger. I can have the right attitude to change and I can be motivated to change but I need a reason – a reason I can personally latch on to. This is the trigger – the moment when attitude and motivation combine to shift behaviour. Much of the current messaging involves general messaging. There are points in every campaign where the opportunity to reinforce a trigger through targeted messaging becomes necessary. Not recognising the need to influence trigger points results in messaging that becomes white noise.
  • Variety, Variety, Variety. Tell me the same story in as many ways you can. Don’t tell me once or in the same way, I get bored. Engage my imagination and never let up on the message or lose my attention. Most of all, prepare me early for what I need to do next.

We must all change our behaviour to address the spread of COVID-19. Importantly, it must be a collective action. It is a community response in which we agree to limit and restrict our behaviour for the good of all.

One in, all in.

About the Authors

Sally Dorsett and Dr. David Schmidtchen lead Synergy’s creativeXpeople practice. You can find out more about that hereJason Perelson is Synergy’s Creative Director and spends his time helping our clients to design strategic messaging campaigns.

If we can help with you with strategic messaging and behaviour change, contact us today.

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