Guest Post: Time to change the fear narrative

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Throughout my twenties in parliament I learnt the importance of science-based decision making. This wasn’t just due to the logic of founding policy in evidence, but from a saleability perspective: we needed to convince the public about why we were making a decision and have a platform on which to defend ourselves if it was a total flop.

But evidence alone doesn’t sell a policy. As a communicator I am keenly aware of the power of emotive language – we pull at the heart strings, we carefully craft a call to action, we play on emotions to get the desired reaction. And there is no greater emotion than fear.

Thanks to the approach taken in New Zealand our healthcare system hasn’t been inundated with Covid-19 cases. Much of this success is due to the effective communication that bought the team of five million on board. However, alongside the shift in messaging – from flattening the curve to stamping it out – a culture of fear has bred throughout New Zealand.

This has manifested itself in the oddest ways, which over the past few months I have observed at first amusement and more recently exasperation. Neighbours not only practiced social distancing but also avoided eye contact, children share birthday cake at preschool yet morning tea is deemed a Covid-19 risk. This is as absurd as the popularity of book, toy and baking swaps that went on over Level 4, which also defied logic.

Despite the Ministry of Health lifting the Lockdown rules in line with New Zealand’s risk level, the messaging to the public has led to an acceptance of rules for rules sake. We are living in a community where rules based on fear, not science, are considered enough and questioning the logic of these rules is seen as rebellion.

The result is marginalising those in the community who respect evidence-based decision making. This is the status quo, and I do not think it is kind. Nor does it align with the can-do and curious nature that New Zealanders are known for.

Scholarly articles abound on how fear appeals have been used in relation to Covid-19. Now that a culture of fear prevails in the community it will be difficult to unwind. There is evidence that fear has a maximum value – that is, once a moderate amount of fear has been received there is no further benefit to adding more. The media could abate fear by showing perspective in the stories they choose to publish. Educate us about the latest science, don’t just whip us into a fear frenzy.

Cases of Covid-19 on the border are to be expected and will be business as usual for the distant future as we ease the borders and begin to live a new normal. Moving forward we can’t continue to be wrapped in cotton wool, isolated from the world in Covid free New Zealand. This isn’t the Nuclear Free movement. Cases in quarantine facilities shouldn’t be breaking news, flashing across the screen in a red banner. The word elimination was taken out of context from the start.

It’s time to change the messaging. And this isn’t just up to the Government – we also need a strong Opposition who isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo. The 2020 election will be a platform on which all parties can demonstrate how they plan to reopen New Zealand’s borders and unwind the culture of fear.

Sir Peter Gluckman, Rt Hon Helen Clark and Rob Fyfe asked in their July report – At what point will New Zealand accept less than absolute elimination? As they said – such a goal is likely unrealistic over a long term. Whichever government we have post-election will need to adopt new public health messaging: the type that encourages the public to face up to their fears and accept the new reality of this post-Covid-19 world.

Emily Broadmore is a Director of Heft Communications in Wellington, and previously worked in Parliament supporting MP’s and Ministers during the John Key-led National government.government.

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