Two quieter, welcome voices on what to do about a virus


Good crisis communication should also reflect how we act as a community and remember people’s mental health.

Even the words sow panic. Pandemic, virus, crisis. And we seem to have eagerly caught the beat: if not to just talk about the coronavirus threat itself but also about the risk to jobs and the assault on toilet-paper supplies.

But two recent items from different writers are refreshing for a more balanced perspective. They share the real concern but do more than push the alarm bell.

In an editorial in Newsroom this week Jess Berentson-Shaw raises the basic need to care and think about each other. Government and health agencies must act, she says, but research shows we recover best from major events when we make strengthening connections with each other a priority.

Fear flowers in stories of financial and other losses. It fuels a focus on panic buying or even scornful looks at Chinese people (although the national and ethnic targets here may have widened).

If this is what politicians are hearing it will be reflected in the decisions they make. As well as helping people in precarious industries, maybe governments should support those who care for vulnerable people and keep them away from infection.

Alison Cole, a war crimes investigator and international lawyer who teaches at Victoria University of Wellington and The University of Hong Kong, last month gave a new slant on crisis communication in general and for many people its potential impacts on mental health.

It is important, she says, you communicate with local and recent history in mind. With memories still fresh of the SARS virus that devastated the city in 2003, the onslaught of coronavirus fears brought on a kind of mass PTSD, she says. Hong Kong became a ghost town as panicked shoppers hoarded supplies. Applying the same lens in New Zealand might mean addressing the fact that some people will be too relaxed, recalling the 2009 swine flu as no big deal.

She says we also need to remember people’s mental health. A lack of information triggers catastrophising. But best-practice advice on managing the virus could also trigger conditions like anxiety and depression if it results in people becoming too alarmed or emotionally as well as physically isolated.

Communication, in every sense, is at the heart of this crisis. Everyone agrees it calls for calm, accuracy and clarity on key points that give people confidence.

Health messages should also underline the need to stay connected and active, Cole says. Hysteria can be compelling but makes everything worse.