What next for COVID-19 communications?

The first case of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) was confirmed in Australia in January 2020. Since then, the sickness and deaths caused by the virus, and the restrictive measures taken by states and territories to limit its spread, have profoundly impacted the lives of Australians. 

As countries across the world navigate second and third wave resurgences of COVID-19, we looked at a selection of communication responses from Australian state and territory governments to consider some options for future campaigns.

A new global pandemic unmasked

To say the emergence of COVID-19 as a global pandemic has been an emotional rollercoaster doesn’t even start to describe the physical and mental damage to date – to communities, families and individuals, in what has transpired as the year many want to leave behind for more hopeful times.

Globally, Australia is considered to have mounted one of the most effective public health responses to the coronavirus pandemic, with University of Sydney research suggesting that compared with the UK, Australia’s response may have saved more than 16,000 lives.

Government of Western Australia

Notwithstanding the social and economic impacts of COVID-19 restrictions, government public health campaigns in each state and territory have been vital for providing clear advice in the face of the unknown as medical professionals and researchers struggle to find out what makes this new virus tick.

Government campaigns also play a central role in increasing awareness and in behaviour change around preventing the spread of the virus in particular. The unique challenge for COVID-19 communications is the open-ended duration of the conversation and the need for repeated reminders. As circumstances continue to change across the country and restriction-fatigue accumulates, engagement with campaign messaging decreases. Further, the tantalising prospect of a vaccine effectively hobbles attempts to persuade people to think of the social changes brought about by COVID-19 as a new normal.

Government of South Australia

Galvanising younger audiences

During the initial stages of COVID-19, the majority of deaths were in people aged between 70 and 89, however, the number of deaths in people younger than this is increasing. Similarly, the age profile of new infections appears to be younger following resurgences in several countries caused by the easing of restrictions, including Australia. This suggests an increase in social contact among people under 40 following lockdown periods – so called ‘second wave behaviour’ – and that older people are being more cautious about returning to normal.

Government of New South Wales

Like all communities affected by COVID-19, younger Australians have already been through and sacrificed a lot, but research suggests they see themselves as far less likely to contract a severe case of COVID-19. For example, recent highly publicised cases of young interstate travellers and reports of beach and house parties also suggest the tendency toward a more relaxed attitude to social distancing among younger demographics, which may contribute to resurgences and hamper public health authorities’ ability to control the virus spread.

While the elderly still constitute the majority of COVID-19 fatalities, younger people are affected in unique ways because of their stage of life. A recent unicef publication cites school closures and disruptions to formal and informal work as key factors impacting younger people’s livelihoods and education, and fracturing their social networks.

Victoria State Government

Looking at some of the government campaigns to date, we see a common theme of the need for individuals to think of others as well as themselves to protect the community. Messages that appeal to a sense of community, civic duty or social responsibility in order to rouse people to fight together against an invisible enemy have their roots in wartime public information campaigns. Because they are effective, they’ve since been used in war- and peacetime alike, to mobilise the individual to communal action for the sake of public health.

The campaigns we selected appeal to a range of communities but frequently focus on older demographics. And because this virus affects people differently depending on their age and health status, the one-size-fits-all messaging is likely to be less effective for younger groups who see it as less of a personal threat and may perceive restrictions as too oppressive or simply unnecessary.

We see an opportunity to keep younger people engaged in the COVID-19 conversation by giving them a bigger say in the shape of public health campaigns. This could and should mean going beyond the usual tactics of featuring young and famous influencers and extend to codesign with communication professionals. It’s time to invite younger groups to have more of a hand in creating the imagery and deciding the context for health messages.

We’ve got the ball rolling on effective COVID-19 communications – let the younger demographics have a go at kicking it out of the park in 2021.

By Alan Fitzpatrick