Communicating about Covid – 19

In my post of March 21, I argued that the quality of a jurisdiction’s governance could have an impact on the seriousness of its Covid – 19 outbreak. One aspect of governance is the communication of government policy, and in this post I want to offer my armchair assessments of several government communicators.

The emerging best practice is to have politicians share the podium with experts in public health, so the former can talk about policy and the latter about the science underlying policy decisions.

The US government, in its way, follows this best practice because Trump and Pence share the podium with Drs. Fauci and Birx. The problem is that Trump and his scientific advisers are rarely on the same page, with Trump spinning his idiosyncratic interpretations of the evidence either at the press conference itself or in subsequent tweets.

The Canadian consensus seems to be that our most effective presenters are British Columbia’s team of Chief Medical Officer of Health Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix. Henry has an uncanny ability to combine technical knowledge with empathy for people suffering the losses and stresses of the pandemic. Last Saturday, Global TV journalist Richard Zussman (personal trivia: his father David is a long-time friend of mine) asked her about the prospects for the Vancouver Pride Parade and summer weddings. She made it clear, politely but firmly, that the Pride Parade would not happen, and that the sharing of food and hugging that are natural components of weddings are ideal ways of spreading the virus, so that people will have to find alternatives using social media.

Dix often takes a back seat to Henry, focusing on narrower issues such the economic implications of health policy. While this is an unusual allocation of responsibilities, Henry is such a good communicator that Dix and Premier Horgan have gone with what works best.

Looking at Ontario – the province I watch most closely – there is a very mixed bag. The politicians have chosen have to separate political and public health briefings. Premier Ford’s personal message appears to be his determination to do whatever is necessary to defeat the pandemic. But he leaves the details of the battle to other ministers on the podium, most notably Health Minister Christine Elliot and Minister of Long-Term Care Merilee Fullerton. To their credit, both are well-briefed and communicate clearly.

I wish I could say the same about the Chief Medical Officer of Health David Williams and Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health Barbara Yaffe. Williams doesn’t start with the most important point, is long-winded and convoluted, clears his throat frequently, and avoids the camera. Yaffe reads from notes and also doesn’t look directly at the camera. Meaning no discourtesy to these dedicated public servants, I can nonetheless understand why the Premier and his ministers don’t care to share a podium with them.

I suspect there is something else going on between Ford and Williams. Ford sees himself as the private sector guy whose mission is to make the public sector more efficient and responsive, something which he has occasionally said in his briefings. Williams has frequently responded to Ford by giving reasons why policies cannot be enacted as quickly as he wishes. Examples of this are the delays on widespread testing and implementing a policy restricting personal support workers to one facility. Though it is unlikely Ford would use this reference, Williams is behaving like a prototypical Sir Humphrey.

Covid – 19 communications for the City of Toronto are considerably better. Both Mayor John Tory and Medical Officer of Health Eileen de Villa are on the same page about the need for social distancing. Tory is a classic motormouth, speaking quickly and volubly, but he has been mayor long enough that everyone knows that is his style. De Villa speaks more slowly and with obvious empathy for Torontonians. Their contrasting styles reinforce a common message.

The ultimate question is whether communication styles matter. British Columbia has the best performance of the four largest Canadian provinces in terms of cases per capita, deaths per capita, and success at flattening the curve. Ontario has 2.5 times as many cases per capita and 3 times as many deaths per capita as BC. When scholars compare the effectiveness of the Canadian provinces in combatting Covid – 19, I think they should begin with the hypothesis that BC’s communications was one of the factors explaining why it has done so well.

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