Sabrina MacPherson: More information, not less, will help ease people out of COVID fear
If you want your audience to move away from fear, you can't shout at them to stop panicking.
By: Sabrina MacPherson
Sometimes I marvel at Doug Ford's ability to make everyone angry. He leads by checking polls, acts two weeks later than he should, and flip-flops faster than our federal government telling truckers what the border vaccine policy is today. It's not just him, either, his whole cabinet is known for their "whoops, we meant the opposite!" method. I've tried to accept that their lack of cohesive strategy is always going to frustrate me.
That said, one of Ford's recent moves really got me thinking. Ontario is longer reporting COVID-19 cases in schools, and public-health units are no longer sharing with potentially affected families that they were exposed. I've written about my family's COVID scare last fall, and how the messages from public health were key to our sense of calm and sanity at the time. It made a real difference to know about the cases in our school generally and about our son's exposures specifically.
Why is that? We were scared and uncertain, and the fear that stems from uncertainty is solved by more information, not less. Good communicators know when to provide more or less information based on who they are trying to reach and what the desired outcomes are. If you want your audience to move away from fear, you can't shout at them to stop panicking. You have to give them good info and let them find the path to calm decisions with it.
Like most Ontario parents we sent our son back to school last week, and like all those other parents we're feeling a lot of conflicting emotions. We're nervous: Omicron is everywhere, Ontario’s testing and tracing system swiftly collapsed under the crush of cases, there are many stories about kids in hospitals. It feels daunting sending our son to a crowded school in this context. We're also happy: he's with his friends and teachers, and the return of his excited stories at the dinner table tells us that he's spending his days where he belongs. And we're hopeful: we're fully boosted, he's vaccinated, and his school's overall vaccination rate is stellar for both staff and eligible students. He is as safe as we can make him and our community has done its part, too. We are grateful to see him getting the joys of school and friends back in his life.
There remains one cloud of worry, and it's related to that information gap. Without that data, parents are missing the ability to analyze trends, which is a key element of their risk-assessment toolkit.
Our family has kept an eye on spread numbers in the communities we live and work in more than the provincial ones, because those matter most for our day-to-day. Our region is relatively calm, but many families here have at least one income that relies on a commute south, where cases and hospitalizations are much higher. My husband is one of those, and also an essential worker whose workplace has remained open the entire pandemic. Because of that layer of risk, we've taken the approach of limiting our family's exposure as much as possible when numbers spike really high, so that we can stay safe — and also to help protect our school community, in hopes that it will remain open longer. We use the trend data we have to help us make reasonable decisions that keep our family and our community safe.
Many commentators have called for a change at this point in the pandemic: "we're nearing the end, so move away from panic-based messaging and tactics." Broadly I agree with this, in part because fear is not sustainable and tactics counting on a fear-driven response will not work forever. And because we eventually do have to embrace that our window for eradication of this virus has all but closed, and it's likely that from now on we live with "COVID season" like we do flu season. Book your flu shot and your COVID shot in the fall, practice good hygiene, and carry on. We're not quite there yet, but we're close, and we do have to start shifting the messaging to something that can help people and communities make the necessary mental shifts in their approach.
That said, you have to manage this change thoughtfully. Moving from fear to calm and certitude requires giving people more useful data, not less, to help calm them during the return to more normal activities.
In the absence of provincial numbers, some school boards have come up with a neat solution. They are reporting on daily absences of both students and staff, the percentage of deviation from the average absences from the period of September to December of 2021, daily change rates, and the five-day trends. This won't give you exactly the same information as you had before, but it does let you look at trends of school absences in relation to community spread, and infer if things are getting better or worse.
The data nerd in me really loves this: it's a solution that creates a trend line, which is something that people can use. The parent in me feels calmed, knowing that the community is looking out for the community, providing a tool that helps people make more informed risk assessments.
I believe that the transition to the end-game of our pandemic communications is important, but you can't let a hurried approach ruin your mid-game. That goes for the Ford team's obvious focus on the upcoming election, too. Don't let the prize of another term make you forget that Ontario Conservative fortunes are made and broken in suburbs, the ones that ring Toronto, which are currently filled with parents who are both angry and anxious. If you give them good data and communications that they can use to keep their families safe and happy, they will remember those feelings. Increasing their uncertainty will only leave them looking for a target, a place to put all that fear and worry and frustration, and for many that place will be the incumbent, by way of the ballot box.
To paraphrase Maya Angelou's well-known quote: Ford will have to hope that people will forget the majority of what he did and said, but he — and all the provincial leaders, for that matter — would do well to think about what people will remember feeling by the time June rolls around. Those feelings are what will matter for them in the end.
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