With Covid-19 tightening its hold, the Government seriously needs to reconsider its strategy for securing public co-operation and compliance in the fight against the coronavirus.
With deaths and infections showing little sign of abatement, the Government risks eroding public confidence in its management of the pandemic by a lack of information and poor communication with potentially disastrous consequences.
It is astonishing that even after having lost the battle to control viral transmission from reaching the point of community spread, there is no sense of a need to shift strategy in terms of public engagement. Not surprising, the information vacuum is now a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theories as the public struggles to make sense of the phenomena for which they have not been equipped.
At yesterday’s Covid-19 news conference hosted by Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, health officials may have been responding to the social media post of an angry son bemoaning the death of his father from Covid-19 when they explained that seemingly well patients on oxygen support could quickly die if they removed their oxygen masks. It did not help public confidence, however, when another Health Ministry professional attempted to assure the public of a slowdown in the infection rate without presenting a single piece of data.
The fact that the restrictions introduced a month ago have had to be extended for another month underscores the failure to reduce the spread from community to cluster, as Minister Deyalsingh had hoped a month ago. How this will be achieved in the next month remains unclear.
What is clear, however, is that Trinidad and Tobago is far from being ready to open its borders. We are in the same boat as Jamaica, the Bahamas, Guyana and Suriname. It is therefore very likely that any intra-Caricom low-risk travel corridor to be introduced will be limited to Barbados and the OECS countries which have been far more successful in managing Covid-19. Their success is made all the more remarkable by the fact that they have achieved this despite having opened up their borders to tourism.
By now, the need for new strategies should be clear to both the Prime Minister and his Health Minister. People who can be persuaded by logic to do the right thing are already doing so. Equally clear is that haranguing the non-compliant is as useful as parental nagging; people simply tune out, to the detriment of everyone. The Government needs to consider whether its heavy reliance on news conferences as its prime tool for communicating with the public has not run its course.
The focus needs to shift to strategies based on why those who are defying public health regulations and advice are continuing to do so. It is true that some people are plain lawless and knowingly flout the law until caught. For them, the most effective strategy is enforcement of the regulations which is only now beginning to stir. For the many others who are failing to comply due to misinformation and doubt, there is a burning need for more powerful messaging.