A couple of weeks ago I signed up to follow the Ministry of Health on Twitter. Seemed a sensible thing to do: coronavirus and all that.
Since then I’ve been interested to watch their messaging very slowly change. Two weeks ago (28 February) was when the first New Zealand confirmed case was announced. We got this
By the next day they were so relaxed about the virus they took to tweeting woke public service stuff
Pretty sure that even then the disease had killed a lot more people than “fears, rumors & stigma”, but…well…presumably that wasn’t Dr Bloomfield’s view.
On 1 March, we had the “wash your hands” message
and there wasn’t anything on 2 March.
But by 3 March, it was time for some more off-topic political rhetoric from another government agency. the Ministry retweeting this.
Here was the 4 March messages
Never have they given us anything substantial to justify their view that the “risk of widespread community outbreak” not only is low, but is expected to remain low. Small matter of all those other countries, including ones that had much the same border restrictions we did.
By 5 March we had
Probably (a) really up to the public, and (b) any reviewers when this is all over, to decide whether things are being well-managed, but we know that the Ministry’s prime communications objective (stated in the pandemic plan) is to maintain confidence in themselves, whether justified or not.
Also, much as we might sympathise with that family, surely the Ministry of Health’s prime task isn’t those individuals but the safety and wellbeing of the wider public?
There wasn’t anything much on their feed for a few days, but then there was this
Which displays no sense that the Ministry recognises that while it knows about the cases it knows about, it doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. There was also this.
Given the rate at which the virus was spreading globally, it wasn’t clear quite what evidence they had for their misinformation claim.
(Although perhaps they had in mind the Director-General’s several claims around the time that asymptomatic transmission of the virus simply isn’t a thing, a stronger statement that what was made in the WHO report he claimed to draw on, and not consistent with the views of a bunch of other international experts.)
And by 10 March we have this
Talk about confidence: “just wash your hands and don’t worry”. Oh, and by the way we are so confident there is no risk that they actively advise people not to “stock up” (not even just “not panic buy”). I imagine most people have done as I have and ignored their advice. After all, wouldn’t want chaos in supermarkets if/when community outbreak becomes a thing or when much greater social distancing is mandated.
Here they are on 11th. Public events finally come into view.
Then yesterday, there was a change of tack from the Ministry
The “risk is low” message had been dropped, and the asymptomatic transmission message had been toned down.
And what of today, the 13th?
The ground seems to have shifted quite a bit. No attempts to downplay risks, no reaffirmation of the risks being low, just some advice about hygiene etc things to think about in deciding whether or not to go.
And to read Dr Bloomfield’s press release today there is also quite a different tone coming through
“Our key advice, which is fundamental to our response, is not putting yourself or others at risk if you are unwell. This means not going to work or going to places where there are other people if you are sick. All of us have a role to play in stopping further spread. I need to emphasise how critical this is as New Zealand responds to COVID-19,” says Dr Bloomfield.
‘This is particularly important for concerts and other large gatherings we have coming up, including this weekend. Please stay home if you’re unwell.’
Having said that, I went and looked at the Ministry’s website, and there it still says
With continued vigilance the chance of widespread community outbreak is expected to remain low.
But with not a single sentence to justify the Ministry’s view.
People seem to speak highly of Bloomfield. Personally, I tend to be a bit sceptical of anyone appointed by Peter Hughes (State Services Commissioner) and as a mere curious citizen haven’t seen anything much to allay my unease in the last couple of weeks. In its public communications, the Ministry seems constantly to have been playing down risks as much as they can – even as the global situation deteriorates rapidly, and Australia’s situation worsens. It seems fundamentally unserious and it seems not at all consistent with the ideas of an open society, transparency and challenge. And frankly it undermines confidence in whatever the Ministry will be saying through the next phases of this crisis. Whatever actual expertise some of them no doubt have, they risk coming across as unserious and not interested in levelling with the public. (Same goes for some of Bloomfield’s comments about some east Asian countries that seem to have checked their outbreaks for now: no sense of engaging with the public as to what it would take (resources, commitment, compliance etc) and for how long, to even hope to emulate those stories).
Wouldn’t it have been good to have seen the Director-General engaging on, for example, the deterioration in the Australian numbers, directly confronting the facts that (a) there is an open border between the two countries, and (b) a fair amount of travel each way all the time and addressing the implication that we might, in effect, really be considered as being in a Common Virus Area with Australia. If so, the complacency about New Zealand risk might be particularly worth challenging.
And wouldn’t it be good if Bloomfield – or the Minister of Health or the Prime Minister – fronted with the public about the very real challenges the health system will face if we get a serious outbreak here (low number of ICU beds per capita, looking at the Italian experience etc). That is what good, honest, effective-over-time communicators would do. It is the sort of thing that over time builds confidence: a view that, for example, while officials may be optimistic now (rightly or wrongly) they have thought hard about what might happen, and aren’t just trying to sugar-coat their messages and keep the public quiescent.
Wouldn’t it be good if they could effectively and openly articulate for the public the “flatten the curve” strategy that drives so much of what is going on?
I really hope that what we don’t see is better than what we are seeing. Because what we are seeing seems complacent and uninterested in genuine openness and engagement. And that is no way for a democratic society to be operating, in which we simply defer to officials, take what they tell us only when they tell us, and not bother our pretty little heads about other stuff.