After around two months of being in a state of complete lockdown, many countries are gradually easing out of the lockdown in a staggered manner. While ending the lockdown signals hope of returning back to normalcy, the reality is that there is always a fear of a second wave of infection. Many Asian countries including China, Japan and Singapore are seeing a second wave and it is expected that the wave might intensify by the end of the year.
With the eventuality of such a situation arising, countries easing out of lockdowns have to be extremely careful in such a period to communicate the impending risk effectively. In the absence of effective communication, there could be a tendency among people to let go of the newly acquired preventive behaviours because of a feeling of making it through the worst period.
What are some of the ways to prepare the population for the second wave?
Let us use the analogy of a race to understand some of the ways in which risk communication during easing of lockdown could be attempted.
Marathon and not a sprint: The communication while easing the lockdown should make it clear that while there is destination at the end which humanity aspires to reach, there is time to reach that stop. Stress on the fact that as a collective, we are in a marathon and not a sprint. We have to keep running slowly for a longer period of time with some respite in between. When easing out the lockdown, this expectation should be set correct so that people get adequate time to mentally and physically prepare for the marathon.
Call it a pit-stop: Taking the above analogy forward, the easing of relaxations should be called a pit-stop and not the end-point. This will indicate that there is more distance to cover and people could be called on to join the race again as the situation demands. This will both cover the aspect that some relaxations are allowed but it is not the end of all restrictions.
Use subtle cues to signal that the race is on: Even when massive relaxations are put in place, certain elements or aspects of lockdowns could be retained to control over-optimism and dampening of risk perception. For instance, the language used in communicating relaxations is itself a cue. In India for instance, the phase of introducing massive relaxations was also called Lockdown 3.0 and 4.0. Some other cues include retaining night time curfews and phasing participation in public places (Ex: Rota system for accessing certain places)
Acknowledge the fatigue: After a long period of running the marathon or in this case, after months of being in lockdown, undoubtably fatigue must have set in the population. It is in this situation of fatigue, that people need to adjust to new rules and lay down the building blocks of a new normal across public interactions and day to day life.
One way of addressing the fatigue is acknowledging it and appealing to the emotions of the public. Communication could entail appealing to fear, responsibility and importantly collectivity to overcome fatigue. The fatigue could be channelized and communicated as new energy to build a new normal together.
Keep the fear alive: In long-lasting crises, fear is a requisite emotion to trigger action. While fear-based communication should not consume the entire relaxation strategy, letting go of it could indicate denial of the possibility of a second wave. It is necessary to indicate that the disease is powerful and we need to be in a constant state of vigilance. Communicating fear while giving tools to handle it, is a better strategy than faking fearlessness and promoting it. The focus should always be keep the risk available enough through fear of what might happen if vigilance is compromised.
The fear has to be balanced out with messages of recovery on other fronts particularly with the economy and improved mobility.
Call out uncertainty in your strategy: Expecting people to stay motivated to run the marathon while dealing with their fatigue, is prudent only if there is a road map which could be followed. Governments need to communicate the ways in which they plan to lead the population towards the end-point, through the possibility of a second wave of infection or even multiple pulses of it. This could include clear communication of long term and short-term economic revival plans, health system strengthening and curbing spread through critical vectors like schools, religious congregations etc. France for instance, while just easing out of the lockdown, already has a re-containment plan in place accounting for the possibility of a second wave. Other countries have also spoken on technological tools like contact tracing apps, improved testing protocols etc. to show a roadmap beyond the first pitstop.
But, the biggest factor that governments need to factor in while communicating strategies is their inability to be certain about the future and correctly predict it. The trajectory of the disease is not known yet, the status of re-infection, building immunity and even the possibility of getting a vaccine are not clearly known. Therefore, governments need to acknowledge the gaps in their strategy and proclaim their intention to apologize and course correct as and when they get new information.