Are you fed up with conflicting “advice” about COVID-19 from Premier Doug Ford, your mayor and public health experts?
Totally confused what to do to stay safe?
Well, join the growing crowd, because the reality is that our politicians — from Queen’s Park to those in Halifax and Vancouver — have made a mess of communicating with the public about lockdowns, openings and closings, second-wave preparations and next steps in dealing with the pandemic.
In some cases politicians have been slow to act. In others they haven’t acted at all, or failed to explain fully why they took the actions they did.
Worse, it appears in some cases politicians have either ignored or rejected critical advice from public health experts — some of whom have been muzzled — in their efforts to balance the health needs of the public and the desire to keep businesses open and the economy moving.
Clearly, it is political leaders who must make the final decisions on how best to balance all interests in a province or local community.
Unfortunately, though, communications by politicians have been a disaster — often inconsistent, often in conflict with health experts, and often without clear explanation of why expert advice was rejected.
Sadly, this mess could have been avoided.
A huge part of public health is communications — and it’s best done by scientists and doctors, not by politicians. That’s because once a politician takes the lead on communications it becomes a political issue, regardless of whether it’s by a Conservative, Liberal or New Democrat.
It’s a lesson Ford and other politicians could have learned by studying the inquiries into the SARS outbreak in 2003 in Ontario.
The SARS reports revealed the need for politicians to lead us, but also the necessity for health experts to “truth-tell” without political interference.
“Establishing one individual with authoritative credentials as the chief spokesperson creates public confidence, and lends credibility to the messages,” one of the main inquiry reports concluded. “How the crisis or emergency is reported is just as important as how it is actually handled.”
Today, like many premiers, Ford has made himself the main spokesperson on COVID-19. His daily briefings are the main source of news and advice in Ontario about the pandemic.
But Ford has come under increased criticism over his performance, with suggestions he has been slow to act and, as Star reporters Jennifer Yang and Kate Allen revealed earlier this month, ignored the advice of his own health experts when it came to a new colour-coded COVID restrictions framework.
His government inexplicably lowered the recommended threshold for when various openings and closings should be allowed, making it easier for stores and businesses to remain open. Facing a storm of protest, Ford quickly flip-flopped and went along with the health experts. Ford is also rightly criticized for refusing to allow his health experts to speak freely.
One of the key findings of the SARS inquiries was that “there is widespread suspicion that political and economic pressure affected Ontario’s response to SARS.” Many thought that pressure was exerted to minimize or hide SARS because of its devastating effect on the economy.
“The mere perception of political interference, whether true or not, will sap public confidence and diminish public co-operation,” the SARS Commission noted in its second interim report in 2005.
Interestingly, unlike with COVID-19, politicians hardly ever appeared at the regular SARS briefings in Ontario. The main spokesperson was Dr. Sheila Basrur, the late Toronto medical officer of health who became the face of public health.
Currently, the best communicator on COVID-19 may be Dr. Bonnie Henry, the B.C. provincial health officer. She is seen as a “truth-teller,” a clear speaker who displays compassion and with whom the public can identify. In contrast, Dr. David Williams, the Ontario chief medical officer, has faced criticism for what critics say are poor communication skills.
Although we are nine months into the pandemic, there is still time for health experts — rather than politicians — to take the lead on the daily job of explaining how best to cope with the pandemic.
It would be a communication strategy that would mark a return of the experts — and force the politicians to step away from the microphones.
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