[MUSIC PLAYING] – [NON-ENGLISH SINGING] In March of this year, this dance challenge started trending on TikTok. At first glance, it may just seem like another fun, catchy song that will get stuck in your head for the next week. But look closely at those dance moves. [MUSIC PLAYING] – [NON-ENGLISH SINGING] They’re actually based on the World Health Organization’s recommended hand-washing movements. That’s because this TikTok is sponsored by the government of Vietnam, a country that’s had fewer than 50 Covid deaths in a population of nearly 100 million. The TikTok was part of Vietnam’s propaganda war on the virus. Public health officials insist that how governments communicate with the public is the most important factor in beating a health crisis, as the United States has done in the past. Around the world, countries with successful pandemic responses have followed a set of basic public health rules to devise clear, consistent, often clever ways to tell people what’s going on, what to do, and what not to do. The best campaigns got people to make lifesaving changes right away. And now, a lot of those countries are breathing a sigh of relief as life gets back to normal. Meanwhile, in the United States— “Confusion over the availability and speed of testing—” “Aren’t you sending a conflicting signal? It’s confusing to people.” “Lots of confusion tonight about what’s open, what’s closed.” If the US has any hope of finally getting the coronavirus under control, we need to follow these three rules of good communication that have led other countries to success. So what are those rules? First, you have to build trust. “Anybody that needs a test gets a test. They’re there. We don’t want every American to go out and get a test.” Conflicting messages and false promises undermine public confidence— “Mayor Bill de Blasio canceling classes. Governor Andrew Cuomo saying not so fast.” —and seed chaos. ”Vice President Mike Pence touring the renowned Mayo Clinic in Minnesota without wearing a mask.” “I’m telling you, wear facial coverings when you can’t social distance.” That’s why leaders in countries like South Korea, Spain, Italy, and Greece handed the mic over to their public health officials. South Korea’s C.D.C. director’s sober, science-based briefings made her a national hero. And they also speak to another element of building trust— don’t sugarcoat the truth. “I do just want to prepare everyone. Don’t be disheartened. Our numbers are going to go up.” Their styles are different, but pay attention to how Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Ardern used blunt language, preparing people for the situation to get worse. Being realistic is better than giving people false hope. That honesty and transparency has helped them maintain public trust through potentially unpopular decisions, like Germany canceling Oktoberfest for the first time since World War II But trust alone isn’t enough. The second rule— know your audience. You need to know where to find them. That could mean social media, television, radio, or you can get creative. Religious leaders in Afghanistan told people to stay home on loudspeakers following the call to prayer, when everyone’s already listening. In Rwanda, drones with loudspeakers blanketed cities with information. But most crucial, you have to appeal to the right motivations. In the US, the earliest messaging from the top leadership was you’re on your own. “Trump told governors today on a conference call, quote, ‘respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment, try getting it yourselves.’” That attitude contributed to an everyone-for-themselves response among the public. “Worried customers have been snapping up everything in sight.” And it set off anti-government, anti-expertise feelings. “End the lockdown.” While in Vietnam, the government emphasized working together for a national cause. With vivid colors, heroic imagery, and bold text, these posters repurpose the power of political propaganda art throughout history to frame hand washing and mask wearing as patriotic and virtuous. Building trust and knowing your audience are crucial in the early stages of a crisis. But you’ll also need to sustain that trust over a long period of time, which brings us to the third rule— think long term. Take Japan. At first, the government rolled out the ‘Three C’s’ campaign, using repetition, color coding, and simple visual language to issue clear, basic guidance on reducing the spread of the virus. Then in May, they introduced the new lifestyle campaign. The messaging in these posters goes beyond the basics by emphasizing more permanent changes. It encouraged Japanese citizens to change their lifestyle for each scene in daily life. The goal is to reduce human contact by 80%— a more sustainable goal than fully restricting people for months or years, but one that requires a major shift in mindset. Of course, countries also need to enact laws and policies as part of their public health response. But it’s communication that’s the first and most important step in getting a pandemic under control. And the US knows this. We’ve used these rules of strong communication to great success in the past, like building trust. We put scientists at the forefront in crises like polio and H1N1. ”We expect that we’re going to be changing our recommendations over time based on what we learned, and that’s an important thing.” And knowing your audience— trying to convince teens that smoking wasn’t cool didn’t work. We figured out that it was better to open their eyes to how tobacco companies were manipulating them. And thinking long term, the fight against AIDS was all about getting people to use condoms, a permanent, sustainable lifestyle change. Six months into the pandemic, confusion rages on in America. “Only about half of US adults say they would get a coronavirus vaccine.” “There’s a lot of confusion over how to reopen schools.” “You’re a bunch of idiots wearing masks. You know it’s not real.” Instead of going to fall football games, we’re watching the death toll creep towards 200,000. As we get ready to face these and more new challenges, we need our leaders to start communicating with us now. We can do this. We have to.
Opinion | If You Don’t Have a Vaccine, Try Fighting the Virus with … TikTok?
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