Covid 19 and government communication: the missed appointment of trust
If according to Harris interactiv and Odoxa (polls of April 1st), seven out of ten French people approve the measures announced by Emmanuel Macron on March 31st, more than half (56%) consider them insufficient and are convinced that they will have to be applied beyond May 15. It is true that at the same time, half of them (not necessarily the same ones), including six out of ten young people, plan to violate them. These results are confirmed by those published by the Journal du Dimanche on April 4, which show the profound doubt of citizens on the capacity of the Government to control the pandemic: only 35% of the people questioned consider it capable of fighting against the coronavirus and 42% of carrying out the vaccination campaign (IFOP-JDD of April 1st). However, the executive branch does not spare its efforts and communicates constantly. During the week of March 22nd, the Head of State intervened publicly three times on the subject, the Prime Minister, the Minister of Health and the Minister of National Education multiplied visits and speeches. And they stepped up their efforts after the President’s speech on March 31st. State advertising campaigns invade the airwaves and the screens. Nothing is working at the moment, which leads us to wonder about the causes of this failure of the governmental communication strategy.
Before analyzing them, it is essential to recall an obvious truth: the support of the French would certainly be higher if the results obtained in the fight against the virus were better. At the end of March, France recorded more than 300 deaths attributed to Covid every day, compared to 50 in the United Kingdom, 230 in Germany and 80 in Spain. And our 8.5 million doses injected still pale in comparison to the 35 million announced by London, and even the nearly 14 million announced by Berlin and 10.5 by Rome. While it is true that communication cannot solve crises, whose solution depends on the quality of operational measures and the effectiveness of their implementation, its role is to explain them, to accompany them, however restrictive they may be, and thereby to reinforce their acceptance. It is clear that it is not the case here. Concerned about the morale and psychological health of the population, the Government has committed, in our opinion, three series of errors which strongly undermine confidence in its word: a close repetition of announcements with constantly modified objectives, shifted actions and finally the persistence of unspoken words, all of which partially overshadow the seriousness of the situation and thereby attenuate the mobilization against the epidemic.
A close repetition of announcements with constantly changing objectives.
With regard to vaccination, the series of announcements began on December 3rd. At a press conference, Prime Minister Jean Castex indicated that 15 million people would be vaccinated by the end of March, at an average rate of five million per month, starting in January. A few weeks later, on January 21, Olivier Véran, Minister of Health, detailed a schedule by which, by the end of August, seventy million vaccinations would have been carried out, of which only nine million would have been done by the end of March. It is true that in the meantime, less than one million vaccines had been administered. A week later, the same Minister revised his objectives downwards: four million injections (instead of nine) by the end of March and fifteen by the end of June for thirty announced a week earlier.
But on February 2nd, the President of the Republic declared that “by the end of the summer, we will have offered a vaccine to all French adults who want it”. It’s now 52 million vaccinations by the end of August (compared to the 70 million announced at the end of January) and back to 10 million by the end of March. Jean Castex’s press conference on March 4 reshuffled the deck for the umpteenth time: back to the January 21 targets. The government is once again counting on administering a first dose to at least 30 million people “by the summer”, i.e. before the end of June, instead of 15 million. A medium-term objective reaffirmed by the President on March 31, but the 10 million mark will not be reached until mid-April, he says.
The same observation could be made about the objective of reducing the restrictions and returning to a more normal life: announced for January 20, on November 24 when the second confinement was implemented, it was postponed to April 15 by a declaration of the President on March 1st and to May 15 during the speech of March 31st. And we have seen that the French doubt the reliability of this last forecast. By regularly modifying its objectives in this way, without saying so explicitly, and by presenting each announcement, whatever its content, as progress and a factor of optimism, without acknowledging the slightest error, the government has run the risk of being less and less audible and credible.
While Emmanuel Macron was able to congratulate himself rightly that 90% of residents of EHPAD are vaccinated, the fact remains that only 40% of people over 75 years old have received a first dose. And you only need to try to get an appointment on Doctolib or directly via vaccination centers, to measure that access to the precious vaccine is anything but fluid. The questionnaire of the famous application did not reflect the new rules of access to vaccination, announced a few weeks ago. In this context, is it wise to deploy an emotional television campaign, with a beautiful song by Gilbert Bécaud, to encourage vaccination? In the same way, was the President of the Republic right to indicate publicly last week that the main difficulty would be to convince the recalcitrant to be vaccinated when the vast majority of those who would like to be vaccinated are unable to do so or are not entitled to it? By anticipating too much, they run the risk of appearing out of step, even out of touch, and of reinforcing the image of an authority far from reality and technocratic, not to say arrogant.
Persistent unspoken words.
Every day, more than 300 people die in France because of the Covid. That is to say, in a week and a half, more deaths than in a year of car accidents, the reduction of which is nevertheless a national cause. Or the equivalent of the “crash” of a medium-haul plane that would make the front page of the 8 o’clock news. This makes France one of the European countries (with Italy) with the highest mortality rate in proportion to its population. However, by a sort of tacit agreement, nobody talks about this sad record anymore, contrary to what happened during the first lockdown. The figures for the return to normalcy defined on November 24 include the number of new cases detected each day (no more than 5,000) and the number of resuscitation beds occupied by Covid patients (no more than 3,000), not the number of deaths.
Similarly, there is much talk on the risk for doctors of having to “sort out” the patients to be hospitalized if the contagion is not slowed down, without emphasizing that a first sorting is already being made by deprogramming operations and examinations related to other types of diseases. With consequences that are probably less direct and less visible but real, as Axel Kahn, President of the League against Cancer, has reminded us on many occasions.
By choosing not to dramatize and to have a communication as positive as possible considering the circumstances, by concern of the morale of the French and their psychological health as for obvious political reasons, the Government undoubtedly deprives itself of a key factor of success for the fight against the virus: the conscience of the gravity of the situation which alone can lead to a sufficient respect of the sanitary measures. And it relies on the “General Vaccination” to stop the epidemic, with all the risks that this entails, as we see more and more every day.