Over the last 14 months, since the COVID-19 virus was first detected in Trinidad and Tobago, the Government has been pleading with the population to do their part in curbing the spread of the virus.
There have many cases where people have been arrested and charged for not heeding those calls- for offences ranging from operating businesses that were supposed to be closed to not wearing face masks in public.
Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley has been criticised by some for his approach to warning the population against breaching the Public Health Regulations.
One international Crisis Communication specialist said these breaches may be because people do not feel respected when these messages are put out.
Dr Rebecca Rice is an assistant professor of Communication Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
In an interview with Guardian Media, Rice said respect is an important aspect of crisis communication.
“One thing I would say about asking the public to take action through a crisis situation is that showing empathy is really important, shaming or embarrassing people can actually not be an effective technique when communicating with them,” Rice said.
She said people are more likely to resist messages if they feel like they are being shamed.
One way to combat this is to give people ‘action’ steps they can take to still feel a part of their communities while staying apart.
Rice said while it is important to let the population know how important it is to stay at home, it is equally important for them not to feel isolated at this time.
She said another way is to humanise medical data.
“Because this is such a long crisis, I think we’ve all gotten so used to hearing the numbers and I think it’s hard to understand what the numbers mean every day... so anyway that you can personalise the crisis data using things like stories, examples and anecdotes are really helpful.”
She said another unfortunate aspect of a high death toll is that people can have difficulty relating to case numbers and its impact on their own lives.
“I think unfortunately especially with the death toll being so high, we sort of forget that those numbers are people so telling stories about the people who were impacted is an important way to persuade people and remind them that this is about people who are like them and people who they could know and this could impact them.”
Rice said while patient confidentiality laws may hamper this, the Government can try to partner with those families who have lost loved ones to the virus to get the messaging to the public.
She said this way, no laws are breached and the public can have a clearer understanding of how COVID-19 affects people like them.
“I think that building those relationships is another really important part of crisis communication. It’s not just about what you say and what you send out but it also about what you listen to and what kind of perspectives you take into account,” Rice said.