During the COVID-19 crisis, several governments communicated to their citizens on the usefulness of masks in a less than truthful manner. An alternative set of messages is proposed.
In early April, the CDC recommended that Americans should wear cloth masks in public settings where it is difficult to maintain social distancing guidelines. For many years there had been academic research available showing that masks had been of use in containing pandemic outbreaks in Asia in the last two decades. Notwithstanding that, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak people first heard from authorities (including the CDC) that there was no need for the general public to wear masks. Was this a case of progressing insights into the matter with more and more research becoming available on the transmission of CODIV-19? Yes, a gradually better understanding of the asymptomatic transmission of CODIV-19 did play a role in this, but there was also another – very different – factor in play.
Scarcity management trumps the truth
Two countries where I followed the government recommendations on masks closely were my native country Belgium and the country where I live and work today, the United States.
As said, at the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak Americans were initially told that there was little need to be concerned about masks. The Belgian government sang a very similar tune. Masks were said to be of critical importance as personal protective equipment in hospital settings for first line healthcare workers, but did not benefit anyone else, Belgians heard. Besides, even if masks would have had any use to ordinary citizens, they would not be able to be counted on to actually wear the masks correctly. Different Belgian authorities – including federal health minister Maggie De Block – added to the argument against masks that they create a false sense of security.
The problem with the degree to which the importance of masks was downplayed by both governments is that their messages were really focused on scarcity management more than informing the public in a transparent manner. Looking back at the CDC messaging at the start of the crisis, Lawrence Gostin (professor of global health law at Georgetown University) says that CDC guidance at that time “[…] wouldn’t have been correct. Based upon the science we knew at the time.” [my italicization, JD]
An alternative to little white lies
So the public was told white lies and this happened in order to prevent a run on a scarce resource that was very needed by frontline healthcare workers. Vincent T. Covello (Center for Risk Communication) identified different trust factors in high stress situations. Caring and empathy alone account for fifty percent. Competence and expertise take between fifteen and twenty percent and so do honesty and openness – all other factors account for another fifteen to twenty percent.
But even if honesty would not account for anything, even if in other words the public would not trust the government any less after a lie, this would not have changed my own assessment of what had been said. I consider truthful communication to be a first principle that communicators (be they corporate or public) must adhere to at all time. Put differently: Communicators need to be truthful not because telling the truth will make them efficient at accomplishing communication objectives with their audiences (although it will), but because their audiences have a right to hear the truth whatever the circumstances are.
What would have been a workable alternative to the messages people heard regarding masks in both countries? The authorities could have told their citizens:
- that there was a shortage of masks
- that frontline healthcare workers had the highest need for protection and that therefore they were first in line to receive the masks that were available
- that people could however, while masks were being ordered for everyone, create their own masks or even wear alternatives if that was not an option
- that people would not only receive instructions on how to make masks or arrange for certain clothing to serve as masks, but would also receive information on how to best wear them
Added to this – and I am circling back to Covello’s research on the importance of empathy now – would then of course be that the government was aware that people were scared and looking for answers and that it was doing everything it possibly could to protect and inform them.
All of the messages above would have been truthful, credible and transparent. They would also have empowered people to protect themselves.
Did you enjoy this piece on how governments failed to communicate truthfully on masks?
You might also like our piece article on how pre-mortems can serve decision-making well with an illustration from Belgian communication on the closure of bars and restaurants during the COVID19 crisis.
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