Letter: Acknowledging threats during crisis communication

Home International Letter: Acknowledging threats during crisis communication

Tauno Iileka

The First World countries have recorded the most coronavirus disease (Covid-19) cases worldwide. As of 15 April 2020, the United States of America (USA) recorded over 614 000 Covid-19 cases (the highest in the world), followed by Spain, Italy, France, Germany and the United Kingdom. USA and Italy also recorded the highest number of deaths due to Covid-19.

British daily newspaper, The Guardian, reports that US President Donald Trump attributes these devastating figures to the World Health Organisation (WHO) for failing to send its experts to the source of the outbreak (Wuhan, China) to gather samples, a failure that caused a setback to contain the pandemic. Trump made this accusation on 14 April 2020 when he announced that his administration would halt WHO funding due to this ‘failure’.

According to media reports, there was a delayed response by the Trump administration coupled with restrictions on testing. The US government only intensified its response to the virus in March 2020 when testing restrictions were relaxed. By then, over 100 cases had already been confirmed and 11 people had already died from Covid-19 in the US.

Trump’s style of communication during the Covid-19 pandemic reveals two controversial crisis communication strategies that crisis managers should avoid: denial in the face of evidence and scapegoating. While WHO and other health officials cautioned governments and individuals to be overly prepared for Covid-19 instead of underestimating its threat, Trump relentlessly made statements implying that the US had the virus under control, therefore, downplaying the threat. The Washington Post has a timeline of Trump’s statements suggesting that the virus was under control, while delaying government response.

On 22 January 2020, Trump responded to a question on whether he was worried about a possible Covid-19 pandemic after the first case was confirmed in the US by saying they had it “totally under control. It is one person coming in from China.”

Again on 30 January 2020, a day before he declared Covid-19 a public health emergency and three weeks after WHO issued coronavirus response guidelines, he said they had it “very well under control,” adding that they had “a very little problem” [five confirmed cases].

When testing restrictions were relaxed on 5 March 2020, Trump mentioned that because of his government’s “quick action” on closing borders, the US “only” had 129 cases and 11 deaths, while the rest of the world had approximately 100 000 cases and 3 280 deaths.

Furthermore, the US government shifted blame of its delayed response to WHO by claiming a slow response by WHO, a strategy known as scapegoating. This is in spite of WHO’s fairly early alert over the Wuhan outbreak on 5 January 2020 – less than one month after the first case was recorded. WHO further briefed the US (WHO’s biggest donor) and other countries on 7 January 2020. Two days later, WHO issued coronavirus response guidelines to member states for their own risk assessment and planning. Two weeks later, WHO formally declared a global emergency due to coronavirus outbreak.
In spite of this, the White House reports that the Trump administration only declared a public health emergency and restricted travelling from China on 31 January 2020 – three weeks after WHO issued coronavirus response guidelines.

 According to Human Rights Watch, authorities silenced and reprimanded doctors when they wanted to sound the alarm on the new virus in December last year, denying such a situation. Because of this denial, millions of people continued to leave and pass through Wuhan, giving the virus a devastating opportunity to spread across China and around the world.
Furthermore, the governments of Thailand, Cambodia, Venezuela, Bangladesh, and Turkey are detaining journalists and anyone else criticising the official response to the coronavirus.

Instead of using denial and scapegoating as crisis communication strategies, crisis managers should use such crises as opportunities for self-introspection and preparedness for future crises.  Crises are inevitable, but crisis management plans are how threats are mitigated. A decent crisis communication strategy would be a promise to do better, which indeed should be evident in action, to create credibility.

WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, during a media briefing on Covid-19 on 14 April 2020, advised governments of both developed and developing countries to be humble enough to acknowledge that public health systems across the board are not well prepared to prevent disease outbreaks, early diagnosis and response to pandemics such us Covid-19. 

Therefore, in addition to acknowledging weaknesses in public health systems during crisis communication, governments should start doubling investments into stronger health systems to ensure public trust in their preparedness for future disease outbreaks, diagnosis and response.