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Getting the message across: Public health campaigns in the time of COVID-19

By in Sports & Health
A public health message is displayed in front of Oskāyak High School on March 24, 2020 | Erin Matthews/ Opinions Editor

 Public health messages have been used to combat disease and alter behaviours for over 150 hundred years. Posters were the medium of choice in the early 20th century, with eye-catching illustrations and pointed messages used to out­line health risks.

While posters and bill­boards are still frequently used for the dissemination of public health warnings and messages, a new kind of de­livery system is also being implemented — the internet. We are currently experienc­ing the first major pandemic in the age of social media and platforms from Twitter to In­stagram are now participants in the spread of public health campaigns.

The strategies haven’t really changed in the past century, with a mixture of ‘calls to ac­tion’ and public shaming, hop­ing to curtail the behaviour that is responsible for spread­ing disease. COVID-19 has ushered in new vocabulary and catchphrases, but is the messaging effective enough?

Flatten the curve

This phrase has only been a part of the zeitgeist since early March, but “flatten the curve” has now become a battle cry for medical professionals and citizens trying to do their part.

The curve we need to flat­ten is the exponential growth of COVID-19 cases, which skyrocket if we do nothing to slow the spread of infec­tion. The more cases of the vi­rus, the higher the curve and risk hitting the ceiling of our healthcare system. When the curve gets too high, the sys­tem collapses, and becomes overwhelmed with patients.

If we flatten the curve, we are not necessarily prevent­ing cases but we are spread­ing out the number of people who will get sick over a longer period of time. Our hospitals can treat the patients who come in because the influx isn’t as great.

People still get sick, but they have access to care that may not be available if everyone gets ill at once.

The message appears to be effective. It’s catchy and it can be visualized — an angry red peak being flattened to a blue hill — which helps make it a tangible strategy for many. But the core of the message might have been lost.

It’s a long-term trend, not a short-term measure. Flatten­ing the curve takes time. It’s a slow, gradual shift that will take much longer than two weeks. Something we are all beginning to recognize.

Social distancing

Two weeks ago these words were not uttered often, but now the phrase has become part of our vernacular. Social dis­tancing is on trend to be the buzzword of the year — with self-isolation and quarantine likely close behind. But has it been the most effective mes­sage?

At its inception, social dis­tancing was poorly defined by officials. We had this new phrase that acted as a guide­line to navigate our new reality, but no one really knew what it meant.

Can I go over to my friend’s house as long as I sit across the room from them?

It took several weeks for the rules of social distancing to be ironed out and for many to catch on to the core message. The distance was a six-foot one. Unless summoned digitally, friends are off limits. Interac­tions with the public are to be limited and all transactions need to be touchless.

The confusion caused by the phrase makes its overall effec­tiveness questionable. There has been a push by Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam to use the term “physical dis­tancing” in lieu of this phrase.

Don’t be Patient 31

The story of “Patient 31” has been lost in the noise generat­ed by other buzzwords, but it is an effective illustration of the spread of COVID-19.

Patient 31 shows us the im­portance of testing people, trac­ing their connections and why we need to keep our distance from others to have a fighting chance against this disease.

South Korea’s efforts at man­aging the spread of COVID-19 have been unprecedented. Their testing was far-reaching, and they were able to identify and isolate cases quickly and effi­ciently.

But one person was capable of crashing that system. Instead of self-isolating after developing a fever, Patient 31 went to a hotel lunch buffet, took a taxi, went to a clinic and attended church.

The infamous Patient 31 is thought to be responsible for two clusters of COVID-19. One cluster is the massive outbreak at the Shincheonji Church, thought to make up 60 per cent of the cases in South Korea.

Shaming people into chang­ing their behaviour is a tried-and-true public health tactic that can be traced back to the “spit spreads death” messages during Spanish Influenza of 1918, a campaign to deter peo­ple from spitting in the streets.

It seems that while the me­dium has changed, the com­munication strategies behind public health messages remain the same.

Erin Matthews | Opinions Editor

Photo: Erin Matthews | Opinions Editor

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