Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. Milton Friedman
So what are the ideas that are lying around?
You may not share Milton Friedman’s opinion of the ideas we need lying around. But our response to COVID-19 will depend on what they are. At the moment, narratives about COVID-19 are competing for some of our most deeply held beliefs about the way the world works. If we are communicating about COVID-19 we need to be careful about which of these we are appealing to, and which we are avoiding.
Our piece The Narratives We Need goes more deeply into some of these core beliefs, and what they mean for our communications.
Here we outline some of the specific helpful and unhelpful beliefs about COVID-19. This is about framing: the core concepts to leave in, or out. It is not a list of messaging dos and don’ts. But you can use it to help develop a messaging strategy, or as a checklist to evaluate your ideas against.
By helpful, indicated in green, we mean they contribute to a mindset that is co-operative, caring, globally responsible and hopeful. These are the beliefs we recommend trying to strengthen in your messages. By unhelpful (in red) we mean beliefs that contribute to a mindset that is xenophobic or ‘othering’, socially narrowing, selfish, apathetic or authoritarian. If you agree that these beliefs are unhelpful, it means you would avoid repeating them, even to argue against them.
How did we get here?
This is a global phenomenon that affects everyone and knows no borders.
“The China Virus” – The virus originated in China, and it is because of the Chinese handling of it that we now have a global pandemic.
Who is to blame?
It’s no-one’s fault – There is no human intent in the spread of the virus and no person or group of people is to blame. (But we must still hold governments to account for doing the right thing, now.)
Blame ‘bad’ people, and ‘othered’ groups – It came from outside so is therefore another reason to view immigrants / foreigners / other races as a potential threat. But it’s also the fault of individuals who are reckless and morally irresponsible: the ‘superspreaders’, ‘hair flickers’, the ‘lazy cleaners’.
Who is most affected?
It affects us all but the most vulnerable are the most affected, both in the UK and around the world, and we have a responsibility to look out for them. For instance: the elderly, people who are lonely and isolated, people who can’t access resources, people with underlying health conditions, and people with existing disabilities and care needs.
It affects us all. And we all need to fend for ourselves. If that [in the States] means buying a gun to protect ourselves, so be it.
What is our sphere of concern?
Global community – Our actions here have implications for people around the world. We are part of a global community and we need to look after our neighbours. The national interest is global. Local community – As well as protecting our loved ones, we can model the world we want to live in by showing solidarity with our neighbours and community groups.
National – We need to protect our nation from external threats and prioritise national interest over global. Kin – We must prioritise our families and loved ones at the expense of the wider community.
What does this crisis say about human nature?
This is bringing out the best in people and just shows how well people can pull together and look after each other in a crisis. Look at all the people who have come out of retirement to help the health service, and the people organising locally to help their most vulnerable neighbours.
This is bringing out the worst in people and just shows that human nature is selfish and bad. Look at all the people hoarding toilet paper. Look at the person who touched all of the handrails on the tube.
What kind of government do we need?
Nurturant parent – The government should make sure we are looking out for us all, especially the most vulnerable. We want caring and responsible government. Citizens must be looked after and have their needs met by government. This might mean, for instance, financial support for lost earnings or inability to pay mortgage.
Strict father – The government should pull up the drawbridge and lockdown. Its role is to enforce and police. We want strong and uncompromising government. Citizens must comply and if it’s difficult to cope, then this is up to them to fend for themselves.
How do we feel about the direction things are going?
Motivated & hopeful: We can and should take action that limits the death toll and minimises the impacts on people’s lives. Call to action. We have choices to make and options available to us. It is a matter of decision and design.
Fatalistic: We must accept that this will kill many people and devastate livelihoods. We are resigned to this fate. No alternatives for action, no choice. Complacent: It’s not going to be as bad as people think. The crisis is overblown and we are over-reacting. No call for action.
What can we learn from this for the future?
We should be building a more resilient economy. The virus reveals chronic problems in the economy. We are being hit harder because our health service is already under strain, there have been long-term cuts to social security and many more people are in precarious employment. If we make ourselves more resilient then we will be able to weather the storm better in the future.
There is nothing to learn. This is a severe and sudden thing that we are dealing with. It’s not particularly related to anything else going on in the economy, or society. There was nothing deeply wrong in the economy before this happened, and things should carry on as before once this has passed.