UPDATE, Nov. 6: The Premier bailed out of a news conference this morning. Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced more technical difficulties with the COVID-19 reporting system (for the second time this week) and reports of the number of cases ballooning to 800/day. They are now saying there will be a Kenney/Hinshaw news conference sometime this afternoon.

The new direction from Alberta Health Services (AHS) on preventing the spread of the coronavirus is just the latest in a long series of conflicting and confusing communication about the pandemic. We’re at almost 46 million cases worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and here in Alberta, the number of daily cases are doubling roughly every two and a half weeks. (Update: The cases are now TRIPLING every two weeks)

Yet, the goal of the Alberta government appears to no longer be to “stop the spread” as their headlines say, but to “limit the spread,” which is what they reveal when you actually read their website information. Spreading COVID-19 seems to be acceptable now, just as long as that spread doesn’t get “out of control.” What could possibly go wrong with this strategy?

The government has paid ads out there with a pop-up cheerleading message tailored for urban app users telling us here in Calgary that we “can do this,” and “help stop the spread.” As you click the link and read further, there is this paragraph that is quite astonishing:

“This approach is based on evidence to balance efforts to limit the spread with the harmful impact aggressive measures can have on Albertans’ well-being.” This is what is known as a “split hair” approach and it doesn’t work.

A catastrophe waiting to happen – according to Jason Kenney

In other words, the government seems to have convinced itself that it shouldn’t fully try to stop the spread because it might harm my “well-being.” What exactly this means, no one knows. It’s never really explained and we are left to wonder whether physical health shouldn’t also be considered as “well-being.” And then there was this “reassuring” message at a recent news conference:

“I give my absolute commitment to that sector that is struggling, that, barring some absolute catastrophe, which we do not see, there is no likelihood of restrictions on their ability to operate like we had in the spring, and I do not see any data to support that,” according to an exasperated and exhausted Premier, who had recently isolated himself due to an exposure to COVID-19.

Waiting for a catastrophe before acting is an unusual strategy, to say the least. Judging by the contradictory instructions being pushed out via advertising, I’d say the catastrophe will not be long coming. If it doesn’t end in catastrophe, it won’t be because the government provided clear direction, that is for sure.

For example, in Calgary, there is now a 15 person limit on social and family gatherings – indoors and outdoors. However, “structured events” are excluded from the new CMOH Order 35-2020 and then examples are given such as seated audience shows, conferences, fitness centres, funerals, dining at restaurants, wedding ceremonies (but not receptions) and worship services. As one astute podcast noted:

So, the government has convinced itself that some spreading of COVID-19 is allowed and these allowances are made somehow to protect my “well-being?” For a bunch of small-government conservatives, they really are getting into the weeds on this one. They’ve even broken it down and decided that the wedding ceremony has no new limits but the reception is limited to 15 people. The same freedom from the limit applies to funeral ceremonies but not the receptions afterwards. These guidelines are off-the-scale difficult to understand and follow. The directives are splitting hairs so finely, no one knows what is safe or not.

New rules: All In The Family meets Bridezilla

Of course, there might be another dynamic at play here. It may be designed to look like they are cracking down when they’re not because, wink-wink, these private events are exactly that — private. In most cases, your adherence to these ridiculously complex guidelines is probably reliant on your cohort’s honour system.

Nothing like having your social gathering come down to an argument between friends and family members over what is or isn’t allowed to improve everyone’s well-being. Unless, everyone just keeps their mouth shut or stays home. The strife and stress of overly nuanced rules imposed on our private lives is a nice touch to help us all through this crisis.

The new direction for Calgary recommends you limit your cohorts to no more than three, your household, your school and one other sport or social cohort. It’s then puzzling to note that “young children who attend child care could be part of four cohorts,” because child care settings have “not been a high risk for spread.”

My kids are now grown, but as far as I can remember, young children don’t typically go off to child care on their own, so presumably this means that parents are included in the rule allowing four cohorts? At this point, you’re probably shaking your head reading this. Why not just go with a maximum of four for everyone? That messaging makes more sense and is easier to explain.

Then, there’s this absolute dumpster fire of a statement: “Keep 2 metres apart when you can, wear a mask when you can’t.” I don’t even know where to start with this one. It breaks all the rules of good communication. The main message is last (wear a mask). Then, does anyone really know how far apart is safe? The instruction is to do one thing — unless you can’t, in which case, you should do another thing. This is just negligently bad direction and it needs to be called out.

The message should have always simply been: “Wear a mask.” The political idealogues everywhere (not just in Alberta) have messed with the mask messaging to the point that it may be a lost cause, sorry to say. And people will die, as a result.

Breaking all the rules – of good communication

Over the last two decades, communication practices during a crisis have evolved and adapted to changing technologies. One thing that has not changed in the last 20 years, however, is the need for simple, succinct messaging. There is a large body of knowledge out there on how to explain risks to people. There is also a highly researched best practice approach and a knowledgeable cohort of professional communicators across the globe who can help with communications in a crisis. There is no excuse for this kind of mixed messaging.

When I was working at the Calgary Health Region in the early 2000’s, pandemic planning was a top priority. The SARS coronavirus outbreak in 2003 affected 26 countries, mostly due to the absence of adequate infection control precautions. Once the correct practices were brought in, the global outbreak was effectively halted and various health authorities breathed a sigh of relief and got to work planning for the next one. Then, the H1N1 flu virus hit in 2009 and fears were stirred up again, although the disease turned out to be less severe than feared.

Each time, we were lucky and you would think we would have learned the importance of infection control, but apparently not. You would think that all that training we were given from the top risk communication experts in the world would have made it into communications policy and procedures. I was always given the impression it would. I’ve since moved on and am wondering what happened. I suspect it’s not the fault of the communicators – likely it’s about political interference in the messaging. So, here we are. SMH.

To make matters worse – in fact, terrifying – the Alberta government seems to think it can “manage” the spread of a highly infectious disease and is willing to gamble with your and my physical health. And they’re rationalizing it in some vague terminology, something about balancing my “well being?” What are the chances they will get this right?

Miss Cranky Pants (aka Jody MacPherson) is a professional communicator, amateur politico, commuting cyclist (currently working from home), and coffee addict who gets a little testy without regular caffeine. 



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