Don Martin: Better communication can take the panic out of pandemic
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answers questions while visiting The Boys and Girls Club of East Scarborough in Toronto on Thursday March 5, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)
At the heart of supermarket lineups filled with anxious toilet paper and hand sanitizer hoarders lies a coronavirus communications failure.
And to overcome that, the federal government needs to up its game to calm down eye-rolling Canadian over-reactions to COVID-19.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, back sporting his I’m-really-busy loosened-tie and rolled-up-sleeves look, is dealing with the issue in his usual basic bland style while offering a new cabinet committee as a definitive crisis response.
“Taking it extremely seriously…working with provinces…. drawing on global experts…ready for all scenarios….keeping Canadians safe,” he said today, albeit in slightly longer sentences.
You get the drift. No concrete funding to unveil. No new precautions to announce. Stay tuned and there might be something in the federal budget.
He’s shrugged off the heavy lifting to deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland who, while undeniably capable, is overwhelmed by her too-many other duties to give the coronavirus outbreak the fixated attention it demands.
This is where the new health minister needs to become the point person leading the charge against the impact of this deadly virus.
Patty Hajdu has been a mostly-impressive cabinet talent since her election in 2015. She is now displaying the right stuff to advocate pandemic precaution and discourage public over-reaction.
The public might normally look to the chief public health officer for expert insight, like it did in 2003 when David Butler-Jones was the reassuring and unflappable source of information in the SARS outbreak.
But while the current public health boss, Theresa Tam, may well excel behind the microscope, she’s not so great behind the microphone.
In fact, she was one of the few Power Play interviews last year that we decided not to air because her answers were too difficult to understand.
That puts Canada’s health minister on the front-and-centre line of communications in this major combat mission.
Hajdu will have to track the spread and severity of the virus with her provincial and city counterparts; deliver regular, preferably daily, briefings to the public; and ensure emergency health care funding is on tap for provinces to cope with the oncoming viral wave.
It’s difficult to grasp how, in just a few short weeks, Canadians have been jolted by the high probability of an oncoming existential crisis.
If this virus takes hold, it could scuttle school for their kids, terminate business and vacation travel, stop manufacturing, empty offices and, yes, force households to create pandemic pantries for sick families forced into self-isolation. All this to the soundtrack of an economy skidding into the ditch.
That makes coronavirus information delivered with reassurance and accuracy almost as important as face masks, if you can find them, to control its spread.
Canadians are still at the all-we-have-to-fear-is-fear-itself stage of this outbreak.
But we’re also at the equivalent of trauma care’s golden hour, where quick damage control is vital and having reliable go-to communications is essential to ensuring rational reactions.
When there’s a vacuum of clear, timely, accurate information about a serious threat to Canadian lifestyles, panic fills the void.
But if the truth and consequences are properly articulated, pandemic and panic need not clash in the supermarket toiletries section.
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