Effective communication in promoting physical distancing

A new study examines approaches to communication when promoting physical distancing to lessen transmission of COVID-19.

Story by Drish Lokee.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a worldwide health crisis. In addition to vaccines and treatment a range of non-pharmaceutical intervention (NPI) measures have been crucial in preventing transmission and limiting the spread disease.

The most common of these measures consist of wearing a face mask and keeping a safe distance (physical distancing). To make sure this is done effectively, clear, accurate and timely information communicated to the public is crucial to lowering the risk of COVID-19 infection.

Dr Rebecca Ryan, a researcher from the Centre for Health Communication and Participation at La Trobe University, led a team of colleagues to examine different approaches when communicating information surrounding COVID-19.

The review was undertaken by Cochrane Consumers and Communication with funding from the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) European Office. It aimed to provide a review of evidence focusing on the feasible and effective approaches to promote acceptance, adherence, and uptake of physical distancing measures for COVID prevention and control.

“We need to recognise the importance of tailoring communication and support to the community,” says Dr Ryan. “Policymakers and decision makers need to be aware of that need, so that people are able to understand and follow the measures that are not totally out of their reach.”

One of the approaches to communication is involving the community in decision making associated with the promotion of physical distancing.

Dr Ryan highlights that language needs to be understandable and consistent, as most people quickly start to lose trust in messages.

“Community engagement will help to improve the acceptability of the messaging and the information. It will also help to improve reach because you can identify different ways of disseminating the information and of reaching hard to reach groups.”

While misinformation and miscommunication can influence the acceptance of some public health measures, Dr Ryan says the onus is to gain public confidence and acknowledge the risks of the pandemic which will help in decision making.

“One of the things that we found important in the review was the idea of emphasising the public health benefits and the benefit to the community of following physical distancing measures,” says Dr Ryan.

“It’s important to recognise that to undertake these measures is an altruistic action and will be of benefit not just for yourself, but everyone around you. If we can more accurately assess our own risk, we can make an informed choice about whether we're willing to take on that risk or not to engage with the world again.”