Journal Column – Communication key to managing the pandemic

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Communication key to managing the pandemic


Back in the mid 1980’s I proudly served in the Army and will never forget the section, during basic training, dedicated to weapons of mass destruction; commonly referred to, in military jargon, as NBC warfare (Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons).  Without doubt, the scariest for me was always the biological weapons.  Mainly for the sheer difficulty to control them, and the extremely widespread and deadly capability they offered.  Without doubt, the Bio-weapons are the ones the military fear the most.



Indeed, since the Stone Age we humans have endured a number of very nasty and widespread plagues and pandemics that have literally killed tens of millions. The Bible even refers to an apocalyptic plague bringing about the end of the world. So, it could be said that fear of an unknown and deadly bacterium is a part of our subconscious DNA.  Therefore, it’s not so surprising, that when reports of an unknown, highly contagious virus was sweeping across the globe killing large numbers of people, our natural instinct was nervous apprehension.



This new coronavirus, later to be categorised as COVID-19, was highly contagious and spreading very fast and understandably the UK, like many governments, following advice from scientists and the WHO, erred on the side of caution and implemented a range of containment plans including the use of hand sanitation, PPE, strict hygiene measures, self-isolation and eventually, in March, a nationwide lock-down.



Nothing like this had ever happened before and so understandably people were very uncertain of what was happening and what the short, medium and long term impact would be.  It was uncharted water for everyone and no amount of theoretical text book hypothesis and conjecture was ever really going to provide a smooth and speedy solution.  There were simply too many unknowns.



Crucial to effectively managing a viral pandemic on this scale and ensuring the understanding, cooperation and support of the nation was clear, sober and assertive communication. Regrettably, it’s my view that the whole communication management and delivery over the handling of this pandemic has been abysmal from the start and continues to be so.



While the government must shoulder a lot of the blame, the various media outlets must also acknowledge their role in making things much worse than they need be.  From the start almost every medium from TV, print, radio, on-line to social media whipped up the coronavirus, without foundation, into some kind of modern Black Death that was going to destroy the NHS and wipe out mankind.  So, not surprisingly, many people became terrified.


There is little that can be realistically done to rein in the likes of social media and while private media organisations tend to take the view that bad news is better for sales, the same cannot be said of the BBC.  As a media writer and local community radio presenter I have always believed that in times of national crises the BBC has an important role in ensuring that the public is informed, educated, kept calm and brought together.



Given the coronavirus is clearly the biggest crisis facing the world in a long time, I was, and remain, shocked and angered by the dreadful standard of the news output by a national media broadcaster as revered as the BBC.  The vast majority of their news programmes from the outset were, and remain, focused entirely on repeatedly broadcasting graphic and alarming reports of doom, with little composure or balanced reference.



No wonder we saw widespread panic among an already fragile nation. Panic that is leading to some unpleasant side-effects and exacerbating criminal and irresponsible behaviour. The country has a huge hill to climb before we can get back to life before COVID-19 and that will be made easier and quicker if the BBC starts to put the recovery of the nation’s health and economic welfare ahead of cheap political point scoring.



Back in March, when the lock-down was first implemented, we knew little about COVID-19. However, 5 months on we’ve learned a lot more about the virus.  Like the flu, with which it shares similar symptoms, COVID-19 is more harmful to the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.  Data is now coming to light that large numbers of people have seemingly caught COVID-19 with mild or even no symptoms, which will reduce significantly the fatality ratio with some estimating that it’s quite possibly now lower than that of seasonal flu.  That’s no cause for complacency, as flu is a very unpleasant virus and, despite vaccines for many strains, is still one of the biggest killers of humans.



The fact is, there are literally thousands of dangers and risks to life and limb. However, no matter how risk averse we are, one thing’s for sure, some day we are all going to die.



So, we balance those risks against the quality of life we want. We are now seeing large numbers of people rebelling against the pandemic counter measures. Perhaps, they think a life perpetually masked, scared witless of being near fellow humans and stuck in a virtual domestic bubble, devoid of close social interaction is not a life worth living.



COVID-19 is unpleasant but it’s proving now to be no worse than many other viruses we take for granted and manage to live alongside. There is more to life than mere existence, so maybe it’s time to stop being so scared, come out of our bunkers and start living again.


This column was first published in the Newcastle Journal on the 6th August 2020