Communication in times of pandemic : the failures of the WHO

Communication en temps de pandémie : les ratés de l’OMS

Communication en temps de pandémie : les ratés de l’OMS

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general


10 July 2020 10: 10


Communication in times of pandemic : the failures of the WHO

Isabelle Burgun

Agence Science-Presse

Since the beginning of the pandemic, a grumble rises before the communications of the world health Organization (WHO). Not easy to communicate the risks in time of health crisis, reports a recent exploratory study by canadian researchers.

“The communication strategy of the WHO for lack of consistency, particularly on the social networks that have been widely used, in contrast to the more official channels “, explains Gabriel Blouin-Genest, assistant professor of the School of applied politics at the University of Sherbrooke. “The transmission of the information depended on the day or of the person, and went from one extreme to the other, the extension to the excerpts from technical reports, without their own logic. “

His team and his colleagues in ontario have analyzed the communications made by the WHO during the first months of the crisis, from December 31, 2019 January 31, 2020. They are interested also to the misinformation and the psychosocial impacts of the pandemic — an initial survey has highlighted that ” poorly informed increases anxiety “.

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

“To err is human, it is not easy to communicate the uncertainty. But the public health agencies rely on these communications in order to make their decisions. This can be very problematic in countries with health systems failing, ” notes M Blouin-Genest.

A lot of confusion around the terms used to speak of the limitation of the movement of people and trade, have been identified by the researchers during this first month.

More recently, the organization still had to explain his comments on the transmission of the Covid-19 by asymptomatic individuals. After having suggested that this route of transmission was very rare, Maria Van Kerkhove, technical officer of WHO, said the next day that the actual rates of transmission from asymptomatic are not yet known.

Historically, this is not the first time that the WHO is being criticized. When the H1N1 flu, she had been accused of having overestimated the risk, and when the Ebola epidemic, for taking too long to respond.

To adequately communicate in a hyperconnected world, he would, according to Blouin-Genest, align its communications and focus on the official channels. “More often than not, we don’t know who’s talking about “, he laments.

WHO should be inspired by the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC), which compiles scientific information and makes recommendations in deciding between the policy and the science.

The fact remains that, even when it innovates, WHO is still criticizing, for example, when it combines with the private sector and the companies of the Internet to develop new tools, such as a recent system alert on WhatsApp (WHO Health Alert). The body attempts yet to meet there basic needs, particularly from countries more vulnerable.

Hot on the crisis

This study highlights a work from the perspective of the communication strategy to be particularly useful, especially in this context of emergency, ” says Oumar Kane, a professor in the department of communication sociale et publique of the Université du Québec à Montréal.

“This is an interesting evaluation of the crisis communication of the WHO according to a continuum of temporal specific enough. “He regrets only that, having regard to the subject matter thereof, has not been questioned,” the contribution of a specialist in communication sciences. “He would also have desired a in-depth analysis and more of a setback, but” it is inevitable for this kind of exercise that aims at a response to hot. “

“We cannot however pass over in silence the fact that the WHO has tried to put in place a crisis communication at the highest summit of the institution with points to press very regular, not to mention the extreme uncertainty that prevailed around the disease. It is necessary to take account of this very difficult context for any assessment of their communication, which had the merit of presenting on a regular basis a status report to the public at large “, noted the expert.

In the end, this is an exercise “very enlightening” and helpful in a context where ” the communication of WHO is attacked on the basis of a partisan political nature “.

Le Soleil

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