Communicating clearly about coronavirus and COVID-19

Our global health crisis highlights the importance of communicating clearly when messages must be understood by the whole community to save lives.

In Australia, there has been confusion in public messaging and discussion, with some key terms incorrectly used interchangeably and the specific meaning of other terms not clear or changing quickly:

  • coronavirus (the type of virus) vs SARS-CoV-2 (the specific virus) vs COVID-19 (the disease)
  • lockdown vs shutdown
  • stay at home vs self-isolate vs quarantine
  • essential vs non-essential jobs and services
  • social distancing vs physical distancing
  • a gathering
  • older people and vulnerable people.

The meaning of a term such as “gathering” has varied by both space and time, and context, across different states.

While graphs and figures are useful as visual summaries, they have their own challenges in communicating mathematical concepts of rates, risk, probabilities, growth, predictions and curves. A graph can convey a message quickly – but it may be the wrong message if the numbers underlying graphs and their sources are not clear and comparable.

Some confusion is inevitable when public health messages are developed quickly in a fast changing and uncertain environment, but keep it simple and consistent for the greatest impact. Messages given verbally at press conferences must be translated accurately into written messages by and for the media. Hopefully, the official government coronavirus app released in late March will help provide a consistent source of information.

Thanks to all the university researchers using their expertise to minimise impacts and writing clearly about the crisis for The Conversation website with “academic rigour, journalistic flair”. Support it if you can. Just as the global financial crisis has been recognised and studied in much research in the last decade, the coronavirus crisis will be analysed across many disciplines, including public communication, to learn lessons for the future.

Stay informed and be safe. For advice on editing or writing to communicate clearly, please contact me on rhdaniels@bigpond.com

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