WHO: failures of communication that have caused confusion on the COVID-19

OMS: des ratés de communication qui ont semé la confusion sur la COVID-19

OMS: des ratés de communication qui ont semé la confusion sur la COVID-19

Bruce Aylward, head of the mission team the joint WHO-China COVID-19, speaks to the media COVID-19 on his return from China, on February 25, 2020.


July 4, 2020 15h22

Updated at 16: 07


WHO: failures of communication that have caused confusion on the COVID-19

Gabriel Blouin-Genest

Assistant professor, University of Sherbrooke

Anna Bogic

Coordinator, research Centre, University of Ottawa

Éric Champagne

Associate professor, University of Ottawa

Natalia Torres Orozco

A Candidate for the master’s degree in international law, University of Sherbrooke

Nathalie Burdone

Associate professor, University of Ottawa

The way in which the world health Organization (WHO) manages the crisis of the Covid-19 has shown how risk communication can become an exercise risky.

This is one of the main conclusions of a recent analysis of communications and information on the COVID-19 shared by the WHO during the months following the declaration of a public health emergency of international concern (USPPI).

The WHO has recently faced negative reactions and to growing criticism regarding what is perceived as a slow response to the pandemic. The WHO has been accused of having been too close to China (in which she congratulated the country for its good management of the pandemic). It has seen its funding cut by the us president Donald Trump on the 14th of April, and then was faced with the withdrawal of the United States on the 29th of may.

But this is not only the content of the messages of the WHO in the first weeks of the pandemic that has put the organization on the spot, but also its means of communication. Our review of the WHO communication in the first weeks of the epidemic, the December 31, 2019 January 31, 2020, highlights a communication strategy is ambiguous, which has caused a lot of confusion.

The WHO has at its disposal tools of communication-formal, based on the international health Regulations (IHR 2005), including the Newsletters on outbreaks, Reports of situation, the tool of risk communication, PPE-WIN, public statements, press briefings, and recommendations. It is also based on the channels of communication non-conventional and informal channels such as social networks (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter).

WHO has demonstrated a strong preference for the social networks, and Twitter in particular, especially in the early days of the pandemic. This is contrary to the communication plan agreed in the IHR 2005.

A slow inexplicable

WHO took four days to publicly disclose the first cases of the COVID-19 (pneumonia of unknown cause at the time). These cases were reported to WHO on 31 December and disclosed on January 4. The first communication on this case has been made through social networks (Twitter) on this day. The report more formal was not followed the next day by the first information Bulletin on disease outbreaks.

On 13 January, the WHO has not used the Newsletter to communicate the first case of coronavirus outside of China. Instead, she has made a statement about this on the web site of the organization, and then shared it on the social networks the next day.

But the use of social networks by the WHO were scattered : 143 messages on Twitter, 21 on Facebook and 10 on Instagram. There was no clear pattern. Sometimes, many messages were published so close, other times, there was only one ; a single platform of social networks was used, or all platforms.

The organization has focused largely on Twitter to communicate with the general public, which has potentially led to an unequal access to information depending on the media used by the population, health professionals and national authorities. Such use of social media seems to be blind and opposed to the methods of official channels of communication established, including information Bulletins on disease outbreaks, and press releases from the WHO.

In addition, the WHO has also begun to deploy new tools of communication for a few days before to make actual ads on their use (e.g. EPI-WIN press release on 30 January, deployed on 24 January).

Multiple channels, multiple messages

From four countries (China, Thailand, Japan, and Korea), the epidemic has spread from the January 20, reaching 19 countries on January 31. The communication strategy of the WHO has continued to expand in many different directions through multiple communication channels. This has led to some confusion, both from the point of view of the semantic of the message.

The screening at the entrance and at the exit, the risk assessment, recommendations, travel recommendations for travellers, regional or global, have been of words, widely quoted, but has never been clearly defined. This has raised important questions about what exactly was recommended, and for whom (for example, China or other countries ?).

To complicate the communication strategy to be ambiguous, situation Reports WHO have incorrectly identified the global assessment of risk for three days straight. In their status Reports 3, 4 and 5, the overall risk was originally published as ” moderate “, and then corrected in the Report of case 6, indicating that it was a mistake and that the risk was actually ” high “.

This error has created a confusion on the risk assessment of the WHO at a critical moment. On the basis of the information currently available, it is not clear whether this is a communication error or an error of risk assessment.

Confusion around the travellers

Other mixed messages abounded on advice to travellers. The situation Report 9 indicated that there were no specific recommendations for travel, and yet it included a separate section on advice on the movement of travellers.

In an example of a more blatant, no travel restrictions have been included on the day on which the WHO has declared a public health emergency of international concern (USPPI) in the Ratio of 10 situation, a decision that has probably created a lot of uncertainties and misunderstandings.

This decision has perhaps not been a problem in itself, but the approach anxious is used to declare the COVID-19 as the USPPI was contradicted by the absence of travel restrictions, creating even more confusion around the recommendations of the WHO.

For example, Australia has been highly criticize by the WHO when it has imposed on China, the 1st February, a prohibition to enter the territory. His record of death and people contaminated by the COVID is now much lower than the rest of the world. The country is now asking for an independent investigation into the management of the crisis by the WHO.

While many countries are still struggling with the pandemic of COVID-19, it is crucial to consider the ways in which the information is communicated to communities in the world. Risk communication is a challenge. It is also a risky business.

That said, despite all the shortcomings in terms of communication, we still need the WHO, and a better WHO — and not the reverse. The Covid-19 is a global challenge which must be solved on a global scale, with the help of international actors such as the world health Organization.

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This text first appeared on the website of the franco-canadian of The Conversation. Reproduced with permission.

OMS: des ratés de communication qui ont semé la confusion sur la COVID-19


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