Misguided communications are almost as damaging as COVID

Misguided communications are almost as damaging as COVID
© Greg Nash

When it comes to COVID-19, complexity has taken the place of simplicity. Convoluted and confusing terminology is used to explain available data on the virus. Intentional or not, the result is the dissemination of conflicting and often misleading information being put forth by government agencies, independent scientists and other experts, and few people know how to accurately interpret it.

As a scientist for many years, I’ve come to realize the significance of differentiating what has proven to be true and that there are areas that need further study. This is critically relevant if one is going to effectively address risks associated with COVID-19. Further, effective communication of risks needs to consider imparting information in a format that the public can clearly understand. 

Not only is it counterproductive to explain information in a way that is difficult to decipher, but misleading graphs and charts of every sort have been used to manipulate information, leaving those listening angry, scared, unsure of what to do, and turning to unreliable sources for their health information.

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Even the U.S. president and surgeon general have warned the public about the threat of misinformation. Recently, a critical care physician at Baton Rouge General said, “We have two pandemics. We have a pandemic of a Delta virus that’s ravaging our community. And, we have a pandemic of misinformation.” 

While it seems apparent to everyone that communication associated with COVID-19 risks needs to be more effective, the attainment of these goals and objectives, a “path forward,” has not been elucidated. The question is why. There is some concern that the messaging about COVID-19 is not straightforward because it is tinged with a political agenda. Whatever the reason, the results are clear — poor health, fear and in some cases, unnecessary death.

Let’s go back to the significance and importance of simplicity. And let’s acknowledge that individuals have the right to make their own decision about how to respond to COVID-19 risks. The hope is that if people understand the risks and ramifications, they will be able to make appropriate health decisions. To that end, I’ve proposed an approach for the government, agencies, and anyone speaking about COVID-19: 

  • The federal government should take the lead. There should be recognition that action, rather than accusatory statements, is critical. 

  • Effective communication to the public, associated with COVID-19, should primarily come from familiar images and graphics (analysis shows that 90 percent of information transmitted to the brain is visual) to folks in the U.S. and throughout the world. Text should be minimized. 

  • Our experience has shown that using theaters and stadiums is effective in communicating health-related results. They allow the use of what is called absolute risks — critical to understanding the level of risks. For example, we can visualize by using these “theaters,” that the risk of dying from COVID-19 in people who live in long-term care is 85 out of 1,000 people (imagine that in a theater with 1,000 seats, 85 of those seats would have black dots to symbolize someone died from COVID-19). The risk of dying in all those not in long-term care is one of 2,000 people (only one seat would have a black dot for every two “theaters,” each having 1,000 seats). By looking at these graphics, people may have a better sense of their own risk, and policymakers can focus their efforts where it most counts.

  • The people and agencies selected by the federal government to present results should understand that “Those who do know, say that they don’t know.” In other words, it is crucial to acknowledge what we know and what we don’t know in an honest way, because only then can we proceed down a rational scientific path. To date, in our estimation, acknowledging temporary ignorance about aspects of COVID-19 seems to be absent.

  • This is difficult to say but it is necessary — The focus on political party, religion, gender, race, age and lifestyle needs to take a temporary back seat when compared to the significance of deaths from COVID-19. Living, is perhaps, a tad more relevant and noteworthy. So, let’s call a peace. Let’s stop using convoluted, difficult-to-understand statistics and charts that confuse people into believing a certain narrative. 

  • Let’s move toward simplicity. Let’s not conceal our own ignorance about certain aspects of COVID-19 behind manipulated numbers. Let’s be honest and constructive so that we can get through this pandemic as a nation. Let’s acknowledge that we are all hurting and need to work together. Let’s not focus on our differences and, instead, work together to eliminate COVID-19 and its analogs. After we succeed, maybe we can have a broader perspective of the world and a better way to communicate and act as one people.

Erik Rifkin, Ph.D. is an environmental scientist who has had over 35 years of experience in characterizing human health and ecological risks from exposure to contaminants in soil, aquatic ecosystems, air and sediments. He has provided assistance and guidance to federal and state regulatory agencies, corporations, NGOs and the public in assessing risks associated with metals and organic pollutants in environmental media. Dr. Rifkin is a coauthor of the book, “Understanding COVID-19 Risks.” His professional activities have underscored the importance of the communication of health risks and benefits to impacted groups.