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Combatting Soufriere and Covid-19: Our Challenge!

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I have felt for some time now that one of our biggest shortcomings, as we face the challenges of a possible explosive eruption and combatting the Covid-19 pandemic, was in the area of communication.

This is important as the nation looks on hoping for the best. Communication must not only be timely and relevant, but it has to recognise the audience being addressed, its concerns and fears. I am even more convinced about this after listening to our Prime Minister on Monday night. We waited eagerly for this address given recent developments. The spike in the last two weeks from 137 reported cases on January 6, with 37 being active to 540 on January 18, with 419 being active was cause for concern. We wanted to be assured that effective measures were in place to address this and to bring the numbers down to a manageable number. Then there is the Soufriere which we are told is carefully monitored. The possibility of an eruption in this time of a pandemic is a frightening issue. What will be the new protocols in the eventuality of an explosive eruption? This will involve the transportation of people to be evacuated and also where they are housed.

What is the population of the areas from where people are likely to be evacuated? This has to be carefully handled to avoid more COVID spikes. I am sure this is of concern to the authorities, but we have not been hearing as much about this as we should. Maybe plans are not fully worked out for this but at least highlight it as an area of concern and let us know what are the options available.

I am not sure how many people carefully followed what was being said on Monday night. I must admit being lost in parts. That was not the time for flowery language or ‘performance’. The audience would have been a diverse one in terms of education, experience, and understanding. Why not have a health expert give the straight facts in a manner that could be easily understood. The PM would then give his address, maximum fifteen minutes, building on what the medical personnel presented and indicating what government was putting in place and, of course, related matters. After all our attention span varies, and some of us tune off. The reason for two public holidays is not clear to me. Would a curfew, say from 7 pm to 6 am, for two weeks serve the same purpose, whatever that purpose is? Businesses would be able to continue, with the exception perhaps of night clubs, bars, and restaurants. There might be others who would have been disadvantaged. Special provisions could always be made.

Many persons, given the COVID spike, have begun to wear masks. Should we not mandate that all persons entering minivans wear masks? Some drivers and owners encourage this, but it has to go beyond this. The PM, I understand, made a statement about not wanting to arrest children found without masks. One of our neighbouring countries found a way of dealing with this. I heard that a number of children without masks were taken to the police barracks. They were not arrested. Their parents were phoned simply asking to pick them up.

The issue of the timeliness of communication is important given the prevalence of social media. News appear on the different platforms, some uninformed or malicious, sparking all sorts of rumours. Official releases therefore have to be timely. They have to be in a form that is as simple and direct as possible to avoid being misunderstood or misinterpreted. They need not necessarily come from within the public service but should be done by persons with some understanding of how communication flows, with a focus on the audience to whom the message is addressed. The emphasis must be on the message, not the messenger. This is a time when skills and experiences are needed. Overall as we approach what can possibly be a major crisis, do we not need to be more inclusive and have a united front?

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian

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