So much information that is circulating about the COVID-19 crisis is rooted in misunderstanding, tactical disagreement or outright political malice. This is rapidly becoming a golden age for bullshit, with social media leading the global charge.
Malaysia’s Health Minister, Dr Adham Baba, recently went on television to pass on the idiotic web-spread wisdom that people should “drink a glass of water that is warm because the virus does not like warm things. Make sure [the water] is not too hot. The virus will go down and when it reaches the stomach which has acids, the virus dies.”
Russians have a term, vranyo, meaning the telling of a lie that nobody is expected to believe. It’s a practice of which Kim Jong-un has no small expertise: he has denied that North Korea has any infections.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump can always be relied on for otherworldly commentary. The US president wanted his country “opened up and just raring to go by Easter”, despite experts advising the contrary.
Trump tweeted about promising preventative outcomes of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin having “a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine”. But his advice was taken too literally by a man and his wife in Phoenix…
“I saw it [a pack of chloroquine phosphate] sitting on the back shelf and thought, ‘Hey, isn’t that the stuff they’re talking about on TV?’,” the woman is reported to have said. Rather than the pharmaceutical version of the drug, they took what a Banner Health Poison and Drug Information Center statement described as “an additive commonly used at aquariums to clean fish tanks”. The husband died, and his wife required critical care.
Trump’s approval ratings have increased to 47%, although even evaluations of his pandemic management are partisan — he has 89% Republican approval, but only 21% from Democrats. He is alleged to have called the virus a “Democrat hoax” and is accused of saying “people are dying today that have never died before”. He made neither statement (although the former is a little muddy).
We have had genuinely unfortunate contributions from politicians, however.
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Tabloids report that the King of Thailand has gone into self-isolation in Germany with an entourage including a “harem” of 20.
Angela Merkel suggested that “since the second World War, there has been no challenge to our nation that has demanded such a degree of common and united action”.
Gabe Brown, Mayor of Walton, Kentucky opted for a touch more candour: “Listen up dipshits and sensible people … You need to realise that this is a serious ordeal. In fact, it’s a big fucking deal. Stay at home.”
Poor communication can be a consequence of larger calibrations, of course: one being economic downturn versus viral upturn. This trade-off was made stark by evident stalling over shutting down the Tokyo Olympics. Would Japan or the International Olympic Committee pull the plug first and take moral liability for the billions lost in venue leases, maintenance, staffing, sponsorships, development and ticketing?
Infection rates for Japan were reportedly low, but, once the joint cancellation announcement was made, they suddenly shot up and public health warnings became more dire.
In Australia, the National Cabinet is weighing the competing consequences of infection rates and economic collapse and, although many readers will disagree, Prime Minister Morrison’s messaging has been exceedingly clear.
National Cabinet edicts are then nuanced by states to meet their specific needs. Further down the chain, businesses decide how they’ll react.
A crisis shows the core of a corporation: at the very least they ought offer an appearance of empathy. Coles and Woolworths have been exemplary with their clear and caring communications. Aldi has been missing in action. Virgin and Qantas have both been professional and customer-centric in a ghastly situation — Solly Lew less so. And the discount trips offered by Princess Cruises were insensitive at best.
Finally, of course, individuals consider their own circumstances and make different decisions again.
This multi-level decision-making is sensible, but when people are reported doing different things, it creates a perception of communication confusion.
On top of this, inexpert opinionistas suggest that different action ought be taken, then criticise unfocussed messaging, blind to the fact that they are exacerbating it. On morning TV last week, Karl Stefanovic urged more drastic intervention, before qualifying his comments with “but I’m just an idiot journalist”.
Good governance and clearly communicated policies can stall and control the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, the far more dangerous disease of human stupidity has so far resisted any and all attempts at containment.
Toby Ralph is a global marketing consultant. If you don’t know what that is send him $50 and he might give you $10 back.