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.
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