Coronavirus: Keep calm and carry on?

What began as a handful of cases of pneumonia in Wuhan City - in China's Hubei Province - less than a month ago, is now a major health emergency and a critical comms challenge, as global, public and private sector organisations seek to strike the balance between keeping people informed and avoiding panic.

A man looks at Public Health England's infection control poster at Heathrow (Alex Lentati/LNP/Shutterstock)
A man looks at Public Health England's infection control poster at Heathrow (Alex Lentati/LNP/Shutterstock)

The new coronavirus has already taken the lives of more than 130 people, according to Chinese authorities. Almost 6,000 people have been infected, hundreds of whom are in a critical condition.

Clear and present danger

It has been dubbed the snake virus, due to some evidence indicating the virus originated in snakes before crossing the species barrier, and is related to the deadly SARS virus that killed some 800 people during an outbreak in 2003.

The World Health Organization has warned that the global risk from the new coronavirus is "high". 

So far it has spread to Australia, Cambodia, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Macao, Malaysia, Nepal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the US, and Vietnam.

Pic credit: Andy Rain/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Pic credit: Andy Rain/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Emergency response

Drastic actions being taken by China to fight what the country’s president, Xi Jinping, has described as a "demon", range from setting out to build two hospitals from scratch in the space of a week to sealing off entire cities to prevent free movement of people.

A number of airlifts are underway to evacuate foreign citizens trapped in Wuhan City.

Some regions in Russia have closed their border with China, and Hong Kong is closing many of its border crossings with mainland China in a bid to prevent the virus from spreading further.

Meanwhile, British Airways announced this morning that it was suspending all flights to and from mainland China after the Foreign Office advised UK citizens against all but essential travel to the country.

Striking a balance

Although there has yet to be a single case in the UK, some newspapers have opted to run alarmist headlines warning of the "killer virus" heading here.

This illustrates the difficulties for health agencies in communicating information where facts are at a premium and speculation the order of the day for some media outlets.

The challenge facing government comms teams is maintaining the difficult balancing act of communicating the danger posed by the coronavirus in such a way as to not create a state of public panic.

Chinatown, London (Pic credit: Alex Lentati/LNP/Shutterstock)
Chinatown, London (Pic credit: Alex Lentati/LNP/Shutterstock)

WHO comms advice

The World Health Organization’s comms team has issued guidance on "risk communication and community engagement" in responding to the coronavirus.

The current outbreak presents a challenge to "public health systems and their ability to effectively communicate with their populations," according to the document, which was released this week.

It warns that "communicating uncertainty and risk" can result in "a loss of trust and reputation, economic impacts, and − in the worst case – a loss of lives."

Britain and other countries should ensure that risk communication and community engagement is part of their "health emergency readiness and response activities".

This is because proactively communicating what is known, what is unknown and what is being done to get more information, is "one of the most important and effective interventions in a public health response to any event."

Effective comms and engagement work "builds trust in the response and increases the probability that health advice will be followed. It minimizes and manages rumours and misunderstandings that undermine responses and may lead to further disease spread."

[Effective comms and engagement work] "builds trust in the response and increases the probability that health advice will be followed. It minimizes and manages rumours and misunderstandings that undermine responses and may lead to further disease spread.

 World Health Organization comms advice to governments

The guidance also states: "People have the right to be informed about and understand the health risks that they and their loved ones face."

Countries which have yet to have a case of the virus should focus on communicating their "preparedness measures" and public health advice.

They should be ready to communicate about a first case being found, in terms of "what is unknown and about the uncertainty of what is known."

The guidance also stresses the need for assessing comms capacity, as well as creating partnerships between the "main actors". 

Governments should include comms and engagement in their preparedness and response activities and be "ready to release information to protect the public’s health in a rapid, transparent and accessible manner".

Finally, media and other comms channels and influencers should be identified and assessed for "their potential to reach the target audiences".

PR practitioners

Health comms experts are stressing the importance of swift dissemination of clear and simple factual information.

Alex Davies
Alex Davies

Alex Davies (above), a director in Hanover's health team,
 told PRWeek: "There are two big PR challenges when it comes to potential public health emergencies like this one. The first is that people have become pretty familiar with international pandemics and the occasionally hysterical media coverage that accompanies them. Public health agencies need to tackle people's initial cynicism and explain why it could be a real health emergency for folk living here in the UK."

Public health agencies need to tackle people's initial cynicism and explain why it could be a real health emergency for folk living here in the UK.

Alex Davies, director at Hanover Health

He added: "Second, even when people accept that the situation is serious, they're often unsure about what they can do to minimise their risk of catching the disease. Again, the advice here needs to be as clear and tangible as possible. People live busy lives; what can they reasonably do to reduce their risk? Keep it clear, make it tangible and explain the risks."

Mike Birtwistle, founding partner, Incisive, commented: "The main challenge is that we still know relatively little and what we do know will inevitably change. This will not stop rampant speculation, some of which will be inaccurate but will inevitably fuel public and media interest, often in unhelpful ways."

Health comms "will need to provide clarity about what is a rapidly evolving situation. Updates should be timely, but must focus on facts rather than speculation," he said.

"They should be focused on what we know and what we need people to do. The Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England prepare for this sort of thing. Now will be the time to put those preparations to the test."

Ranjeet Kaile
Ranjeet Kaile

Ranjeet Kaile (above), director of comms and stakeholder engagement at South West London and St George's Mental Health NHS Trust,
remarked: "With the emergence of any new disease, it is a fine balance that has to be struck by public health communicators. We have to make sure people have access to the facts quickly, whilst being mindful not to add to any underlying anxiety."

He stressed the importance of explaining "what the public need to do to keep safe and signpost where they can get further information from a trusted source like"

And social media, with its speed and reach, "can be a key tool in sharing fact-based information that can dispel any myths".

Government approach

Doctors and other health professionals have been the first to be targeted in comms work by the government, with Public Health England releasing a series of clinical guidance documents since 10th January.

These documents reveal that the government has classified the new coronavirus as an airborne, high-consequence, infectious disease, a category that includes the likes of avian flu, the pneumonic plague, and SARS.

The first piece of government information overtly aimed at the general public was released last Friday and stressed: "There are currently no confirmed cases in the UK or of UK citizens abroad, and the risk to the public is low."

Based on past outbreaks of disease that have threatened the UK, such as Ebola in 2015, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) is likely to be taking the lead on a cross-government comms strategy to manage messaging and ensure a coordinated response.

When approached, a number of NHS hospitals and trusts across the country referred PRWeek to DHSC, which did not itself respond to requests for comment.

Thumbnail & main images: ©Xiong Qi/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images
Chinatown: Alex Lentati/LNP/Shutterstock
Arrivals: ANDY RAIN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

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