Risk communication: some paradigms from social sciences

The World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines on communication strategies to be implemented in an epidemic or pandemic context consist of five principles: trust building, timely announcement, transparency of information, respect for public concerns and planning. They are simple and clear principles. However, the Sars-Cov-2 pandemic – like previous epidemics – controlling and communicating an epidemic or pandemic is not as linear a process as imagined in theory. This is because we are talking not only about numbers, graphs, projections, but also about personal, social, and especially political relationships.

The lockdown and social distancing measures, the restrictions, up to the distribution of drugs, have a significant political component; the political forces in opposition can criticize those in government also to obtain consensus – we have seen this also in the first phase of the pandemic in Italy. Ultimately, effective communication in a pandemic context also requires an understanding of the political, social and cultural fabric in which this communication must act.

In a 2009 article published in the WHO bulletin, Thomas Abraham, associate professor at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of Hong Kong University, argues how WHO guidelines for communicating pandemic epidemics, which are based on a psychometric paradigm that focuses on individual risk perception, can be enriched by considering alternative risk paradigms, already existing within the social sciences, that look at the impact of social, cultural and political factors on risk perception. The paradigms proposed by Abraham are:

  • The notion of risk elaborated in Ulrich Beck’s reflection. The distribution of risk within a society is never equitable, but follows the unequal distribution of power in national and global societies; this suggests that the way the public responds to messages depends on their perception of risk, and compliance with prevention measures will depend on the extent to which the authorities’ messages also address broader issues, for example, that of livelihood.
  • Philip Strong’s model on psychosocial epidemics accompanying disease outbreaks. Strong states that epidemics and pandemics are accompanied by three types of psychosocial epidemics: epidemics of fear (suspicion about who can transmit the disease), explanation (attempts to find a cause, including common sense) and action.
  • The anthropologist Mary Douglas’ reflection on the impact of culture on risk perception. The notions of risk in modern societies are part of a “blame system” that is politicised, and this has consequences on the type of communication that will reach and convince the population.

These paradigms offer insights into how to improve communication during an epidemic or pandemic, and can be part of the training of health communicators in times of crisis, so that messages are not ignored or distorted.

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