I hate to say I told you so

Paolo Kernahan -
Paolo Kernahan -

THE HEADLINES scream scary spike in covid19 cases, revealing an underlying sentiment that there's no way this could have been anticipated.

During the lockdown, I did a series of columns and videos on the importance of a sustained public education campaign as part of the fight against covid19. I shared varied ways the population could be reached with critical coronavirus messaging to shift behaviours and cement eternal vigilance.

Well, for my farseness I was attacked. Many suggested I should keep kwart and “support” the Government. “Is how much education yuh want them to do?”

The WHO had warned in the giddy earlies of covid19 that lockdown was not a solution. But the TT public, ably abetted by the Government, saw the lockdown as precisely that – a cure for the pandemic. That’s why when we emerged from lockdown some citizens were saying, “We doh have covid here again.”

Stay-at-home orders should have been used to drive desperately needed culture change guiding how we live in a covid19 world. It was a precious window that called for a broad, unrelenting education campaign using every possible form of outreach. But, whatever.

Changing behaviours is a tricky business, one that can't be left to daily news conferences. These briefings have severe limitations, both in terms of reach and the scope of what they can achieve. Ultimately, the Government's interminable live updates were reduced to political theatre, with the CMO and other hapless Ministry of Health staff drafted in to prop up an air of legitimacy.

It was assumed everyone dutifully tuned in to those tortuous press briefings. Look, even I found it impossible to sit through Stuart Young's punishing meanderings. What does that leave for the yute dem?

“So what, dey doh read de papers?”

Well, a large segment of our youth demographic do not read newspapers. They're less interested in news and are happy to get their information from WhatsApp and “who say dem say.” What of our older citizens, the ones who won't wear masks and believe the virus is just a flu? You think they're going to visit the ministry website to pour over a collection of scanned press releases?

What was needed was an aggressive multi-media campaign targeting different audience segments in the varied ways they consume content, both online and offline. TT should have been plastered with covid19 billboards and banners much the same way that is being done now for candidates in the upcoming general election.

What about the “mic man,” the town crier common to many communities announcing deaths and haberdashery sales? For the duration of the lockdown, I heard a mic man making the rounds in my community with covid19 messaging a grand total of once.

What has become clear is both the Government and the public looked at the lockdown as our coronavirus solution. When it was lifted most people reverted to their old ways. While larger businesses have stayed faithful to enforcement of mask-wearing and physical distancing on their premises, smaller businesses are more relaxed. Having suffered during the lockdown, many were probably afraid of telling ignorant customers to wear masks because a sour customer is a lost sale.

In small restaurants, shops, neighbourhood groceries and parlours, masks started disappearing and gaps between patrons were filled in. Why is that? Well, the Government hammered home the narrative of victory against covid19, saying international agencies had accepted TT as a top performer against a pandemic that felled mighty nations. The country heard and saw this back-patting over and over.

Now, it was clearly not the Government's intention that everyone should return to reckless habits. Yet, in the absence of sustained vigilance messaging and amid the prevalence of the victory celebrations, the population emerged from lockdown as expected – ready to wine!

The reality is the Government doesn't need my prodding to tell it what should have been done on the communications front. PNM campaigning is in your face absolutely everywhere.

Online video, press ads, music trucks, billboards, the morning show circuit, you name it. Moreover, the PNM is targeting specific audiences with specific messaging as is evidenced by the “do de Balisier!” dance video with the PNM youth. It brought in communications specialists because it isn’t taking any chances with the election. That urgency and co-ordinated plan of attack seemed not to have been there for the fight against covid19.

The WHO says communications is a critical element in the push to keep the pandemic at bay. Lockdown, however, was our “winning” strategy.


"I hate to say I told you so"

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