As B.C. passes the one-year mark in its struggle against the COVID-19 pandemic, an assistant communications professor said that the province needs to keep its messaging clear and back up its reasoning.
Ahmed Al-Rawi, the director of The Disinformation Project at SFU, said that it’s hard to tell whether it’s the communication that’s faulty or the government just does not have the data.
Al-Rawi acknowledged that governments are working in an ever-changing environment as they deal with the novel coronavirus.
“People are really distracted as well as confused because…. everything is happening in a very fast way. And they don’t know what is good or bad for them and and they have all the right to feel this way,” he said.
“This process has been ongoing for over a year. And I don’t think this is sustainable, to be honest… the psychological impact of this pandemic on people, I think it’s showing now.”
Al-Rawi pointed to a plethora of government communications foibles, on both federal and provincial levels, since the pandemic began more than a year ago. Coronavirus safety measures, he noted, are a common culprit.
If you look at what happened regarding the mask issue… you know in the beginning, they health agencies here in Canada and elsewhere said you don’t need to wear a mask,” he said. “But then they reverted their position and mentioned the importance of wearing it. I mean, this kind of confusion would only distract and confuse people. And that’s probably a dangerous thing.
B.C. also waited until the fall to impose a mask mandate for indoor public spaces, despite months calls from businesses having trouble enforcing their own mask rules.
And while the benefits of mask wearing have been firmly established at this point, Al-Rawi said wording over mandatory masks in schools – which started as “guidance,” and then became a mandate – doesn’t help in communicating with already pandemic-weary people. Neither, he noted, did Premier John Horgan’s finger pointing at young people for spurring on the recent spike in COVID-19 cases.
“Where is the empirical evidence that young people are responsible for the newest spike in COVID-19 cases? I’m not seeing the empirical evidence that they are responsible for this,” he said.
That, Al-Rawi noted, cuts to a common flaw in B.C. government communication.
“I think it’s just because the tools the government is using are not that valid, or accurate in predicting and assessing the impact and the outcome of the pandemic,” he said. “I don’t think they have these necessary tools yet.”
That leaves space for misinformation, or conspiracies, to enter – the latest of which are about vaccines. Al-Rawi said that many conspiracy theories – like that vaccines cause autism, created by a now-debunked study – predate COVID-19, but that the pandemic has led to new ones, too.
“The anti-vaxxers often make use of bits and pieces of factual information, in order to show that they are right, and they have been censored or canceled by the mainstream culture,” he said.
Social media, where both information and misinformation can spread like wildfire, has not helped.
“There are these funny videos on TikTok showing that after you take the vaccination, something very weird and unstable will happen to your body,” he said. “They are making fun of it, but this could also be dangerous, because some people might get the wrong idea that vaccines are dangerous, and might end up making you lose your mind.”
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