Communication during a pandemic: WHO failures

“The WHO communication strategy lacks consistency, particularly on social networks which have been widely used, unlike the more official channels,” explains Gabriel Blouin-Genest, assistant professor at the University’s School of Applied Politics from Sherbrooke. “The transmission of information then depended on the day or the person and went from one extreme to the other, from popularization to extracts from technical reports, without proper logic. “

His team and his Ontario colleagues analyzed the communication by the WHO during the first month of the crisis, from December 31, 2019 to January 31, 2020. They were also interested in the disinformation and the psychosocial impacts of the pandemic – a first investigation put forward that “being poorly informed increases anxiety”.

In some cases, the WHO reported the risks with great confusion and for three days, it even did it in the wrong way: on January 23, 24 and 25, it identified the risk as being “moderate” while its own official channels had already called it “high”.

“Error is human, it is not easy to communicate uncertainty. But public health organizations rely on these communications to make their decisions. This can be very problematic in countries with weak health systems, ”notes Mr. Blouin-Genest.

Lots of confusion also around the terms used to speak about the limitation of the displacements of the population and the trade, noted the researchers during this first month.

More recently, the organization has had to to explain on his comments on the transmission of Covid-19 by asymptomatic people. After suggesting that this route of transmission is very rare, Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical manager, indicated the following day that the actual rates of asymptomatic transmission are not yet known.

Historically, this is not the first time that WHO has been criticized. During the H1N1 flu, she was accused of having overestimated the risk, and during the Ebola epidemic, of having taken too long to react.

To communicate adequately in a hyper-connected world, Blouin-Genest said he would have to harmonize his communications and prioritize official channels. “Most of the time, we don’t know who’s talking,” he denounces.

“WHO should copy the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which compiles scientific information and makes recommendations, separating politics and science. “

However, even when it innovates, the WHO is still criticized, for example when it allies with the private sector and Internet companies to develop new tools such as a recent alert system on WhatsApp ( WHO Health Alert). However, the organization is trying to meet basic needs there, particularly with more vulnerable countries.

Hot on the crisis

This is a work in perspective of the communication strategy which is particularly useful, especially in this emergency context, comments Pr Oumar Kane, from the Department of Social and Public Communication at the University of Quebec in Montreal.

“This is an interesting assessment of the WHO crisis communication along a fairly precise time continuum. He only regrets that, given the subject treated, we did not ask for “the contribution of a specialist in communication sciences”

He would have liked an in-depth analysis and more hindsight, but “this is inevitable for this kind of exercise which aims at a hot reaction”.

“We cannot however ignore the fact that the WHO tried to set up a crisis communication at the highest summit of the institution with very regular press briefings, not to mention the extreme uncertainty that reigned around disease. This very difficult context must be taken into account for any evaluation of their communication, which has had the merit of presenting the situation to the general public on a regular basis, ”notes the expert.

In the end, it is a “very enlightening” exercise and useful in a context where “the WHO communication is attacked on partisan political bases”.

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No, the death toll from the pandemic has not been overestimated

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