Winning the communication battle against COVID-19

Batir Wardam
Batir Wardam (Photo: JNews)
It has been one year since the Jordanian state and society joined the world in its open-ended war against COVID-19 pandemic. As with other countries, this war has been fought with a lot of uncertainty and changing conditions. Along the way, battles were won and lost with waves of infections acting like threatening hurricanes, with few lighthouses to guide public and personal decisions. One of the key battles against COVID-19 has not been won yet, although it constitutes a key part of the war, and that is the communication battle.اضافة اعلان

COVID-19 is not a military enemy and fighting it greatly depends on one’s ability to adapt one’s behavior, which in turn relies on proper information and awareness. Needless to say that the mixture of conspiracy theories, ambiguities in public statements, pseudoscience by some health professionals, and rumors have caused a huge negative impact on the collective capacity for the state and society to safely sail through the pandemic.

Ironically, it all started well. People are already being nostalgic about the early days of Jordan’s battle with COVID-19 when the actions were decisive, fast, and efficient while communication was clear and concise. Despite the natural presence of conspiracy theories, the communication tools of the government and media have managed to convey the seriousness of the pandemic and Jordanian society was successful in joining forces with the government, military apparatus, and health experts in fighting the first global wave of the pandemic and keeping Jordan safe to a level that it has been considered as a model of how to fight the pandemic.
Human nature, however took control. The fact that certain ministers and health officials became household names in Jordan created conditions for failure. Populism and seeking fame have become more important than spreading facts and awareness. Many raised their eyebrows when a former health minister declared that the virus needed one week to “dry and die”. Later on, a premature victory was announced by stating that Jordan is now “free of COVID-19”. Self-proclaimed experts engaged in an orgy of media statements about which sectors are safe and which are not, and how different public decisions were based on studies that the public had not actually seen or read. A sense of complacency prevailed and in the phase between June and October 2020 there was a general feeling that Jordan was a virus-free bubble and that we had passed the pandemic. Unfortunately the worse was still to come and it caught the state and society unprepared.

Starting November 2020, the first real big waves hit our cozy shores. Neither the state nor society were ready. The carrying capacity of the health system was not properly enhanced during the honeymoon summer of few infections. Panic was evident in public statements that announced haphazard lockdown decisions. Decisions that came without proper explanations of the supporting evidence behind them or when such measures would be lifted. There was no long-term plan and the only information people received were the daily statistics of infections, moralities, and hospital carrying capacity. Within this scope, Jordan managed to hold Parliamentary elections, despite many cases of non-adherence to public safety laws by many candidates and their supporters. Despite documented cases of breaking the law, none of the candidates was considered guilty. A huge crack in the confidence level between society and government happened and that led to a series of personal and collective negative behaviors that challenged the defense law and threatened the health of people.

The lack of a coherent, clear, and decisive communication plan by the government and the race between “health experts” to declare their own opinions caused confusion in society. In the course of one day, people would hear three to four different views from members of the same “pandemic committee” that advises the government on key decisions. Naturally people would tend to support statements that confirm their bias towards less restrictions and more openness. This has created a situation where no one knows for certain who is right. The continuous flow of pseudoscience from some self-proclaimed experts has contributed to increasing chaos. Under such conditions, the second wave of infections, mainly caused by the mutated and highly contagious variant, has wreaked havoc in society and caused huge pain in terms of loss of lives and health suffering. The second wave destroyed many myths that were circulating in society about the safety of some sectors like education and created increased tension in the society itself between groups calling for more restrictions based on health justifications and others calling for more openness to economic reasons.

We stand now at a point where trust is lacking and there is big gap of information and knowledge that needs to be bridged. There are a few encouraging signs of an increasing awareness of the importance of vaccines, as indicated by higher rates of vaccine registration by the public and more coordination of public statements. The communication battle is still open to be won. What is required from the government is a package of clear, unified, and scientifically proven information and guidance on decisions taken by the government. The public must ditch all undocumented social media news that is based on sensationalism and rely only on scientific facts. The impressive level of education in Jordanian society should be a strong filtering tool between real science and rumors.

Regardless of the debate on lockdowns and the number of hospital beds and respiratory machines, the best and first line of defense is the prevention of infection. This requires a strong will to cooperate with others and to believe in science. Communication is key and it needs to be honest and accurate. The government should be the “role model” for such precise and accurate communication.