“You don’t just have to inform, you also have to convince

This is what the epidemiologist said at the Swiss Public Health Conference. But Switzerland made too little use of the deadline: crisis communication could have gone better.

Epidemiologist Christian Althaus was invited to the conference

Epidemiologist Christian Althaus was invited to the conference.

China may have known about the new coronavirus as early as September 2019 and covered it up, according to accusations against the country of origin of Sars-Cov-2. But when the number of cases increased, China reacted quickly.

At today’s Swiss Public Health Conference, epidemiologist Christian Althaus told a Q&A session that "China bought the rest of the world a month or two to prepare for the pandemic" and that "China has been a very useful source of zoonotic disease," he said."This is because the country already had a good surveillance system for communicable diseases and new pandemics and was able to react correctly.

Also the first Sars virus appeared in 2002 first in China and had (also because of lower transmissibility) at that time still been able to be contained. Althaus said:

China as the point of origin for a zoonotic disease, that is, a disease that jumps from an animal to a human due to a pathogen, was no surprise to epidemiologists. As early as 2017, a study in the journal Nature Communications described China as a hotspot – along with India. Althaus said that in the future, South America will also need to be monitored closely for the risk of infection from bats

"You don’t just have to inform people, you have to convince them"

Suzanne Suggs, social marketing professor, University of Lugano

Suzanne Suggs, social marketing professor, University of Lugano.

Switzerland could have used the head start to prepare for crisis communications. Suzanne Suggs, a social marketing professor at the University of Lugano, pointed out several issues at the conference that the federal government should have been aware of by early 2020: Communication absolutely must be done in a way that influences people’s behavior, Suggs said. Clear and safe information was not enough. "You have to be able to convince people that the measures will bring them benefits."To do that, they need to know the public well, listen to them and respond to them.

Television, radio and newspapers are important as communication channels, as well as the official sites of the FOPH and WHO, he said. This was the result of a study conducted by the Università della Svizzera italiana and the ZHAW with 1150 participants in the cantons of Thurgau, Zurich and Ticino in the spring. Social media was given little weight and trustworthiness. Hotlines, on the other hand, have been very useful – but are used by too few people.

Fake news is hard to correct once it’s out there

And: authorities should actively correct misinformation. That is to say:

The risks must be named, even if they increase the fear. That could not be avoided. "The risk of Long Covid, for example, was under-communicated," Suggs said.

In everyday life, however, it was and is also about the question: In the pandemic, must we choose between the economy and the health of the population? Economist Monika Butler said no: "Both areas have to be looked at."

Compared to other countries, Switzerland is doing well

She gives Switzerland a good report card for this balancing act. Austria, for example, has spent significantly more money to support the economy, but Austria’s GDP has declined much more than that of Switzerland. "There are big differences in economic trends, but both countries have about the same number of deaths."

On the other hand, she looks back critically to October 2020: "At that time, many deaths could have been avoided at less cost. The delay cost a lot.

Currently, authorities and politicians are once again facing precisely this challenge.

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