Our view on… the government’s communication on the coronavirus (2)
Three weeks ago, in the Our view on dedicated to what will undoubtedly be the worst health crisis that France has experienced since the Spanish flu of 1918-1919, we felt that the Government had generally well controlled its communication since the outbreak of the epidemic in France. This was evidenced by the high percentage of French people satisfied with the way it was handling the Covid-19 case (54%) and the rise in the popularity of both the President and the Prime Minister above 40%, compared to 30% in January and even lower in the fourth quarter of 2019. Even though most of our fellow citizens felt that they were not being told everything about the seriousness of the disease.
Since last week, this appreciation of the executive’s policy has been reversed and they are now, according to the latest Ipsos survey for the Cevipof published by Le Monde, 56% dissatisfied, 47% are even angry with the way the President and his Government are handling the subject (+40 points compared to the previous survey!). The measures taken are judged insufficient by 59% of the respondents against 43% one week earlier. The only positive sign is that the popularity rating of the President and his Prime Minister remains above 40%. As we saw in 2008 for Nicolas Sarkozy and then in 2015 for François Hollande, when the Nation is in danger, the role of “war chief” is rewarding and recognized, regardless of the judgment made on the way the war is conducted. Without long-term effect since neither of them have been re-elected.
It may be thought that the spread of the epidemic, the ever-increasing number of people affected and especially the number of deaths, are not unrelated to this negative judgement and significant loss of confidence. The latter is undoubtedly largely inevitable as the peak of the epidemic approaches. But the various surveys show that there are other explanations for this sudden drop.
While communicating effectively in Phases 1 and 2, the Government committed at least three errors in the operational management of the crisis that were or resulted in as many communication errors.
It cannot be too much blamed for the first one, having maintained the first round of municipal elections, given the position taken by the opposition when it was formally consulted by the President of the Republic. How could the President of the Republic have decided on a postponement after the President of the Republicans had shouted in advance “for a coup” and the President of the Senate had declared his opposition to such a measure? But it was totally incomprehensible for the citizens to be encouraged to travel as massively as possible to vote and, at the same time, to be reproached for excessive use of parks under a long-awaited spring sun!
The other two, on the other hand, are the sole responsibility of the Government and are strongly criticized by the French: these are of course the delays in rebuilding the stocks of protective masks, which were irresponsibly reduced by previous governments, and in ordering screening tests. According to the same survey, 88% believe that the Government was too late in the first case and 83% in the second. Regarding the stocks of masks, the Government committed a major miscommunication by not acknowledging their insufficiency, or even by publicly stating, as did its spokesperson, that those stocks were enough. This triggered a growing contestation and unease among all the “soldiers at the front” who were or are still not provided with masks. It would have been better to acknowledge the shortage and explain to them that priority was being given to caregivers while waiting for new supplies to arrive. Repeating over and over again that only barrier gestures matter and that having more masks was not helpful seriously damaged the credibility of the public word. The same was true of screening tests, for which the Government and its representatives have also been told to no end that they are not necessary, forgetting all the institutions that permanently house large numbers of people, such as retirement and nursing homes, prisons and hospitals. In these institutions, the most effective barrier action would probably be to start by separating the contaminated persons from the others and to do so by carrying out tests as systematically as possible. Here again, it is the credibility of the executive’s communication that is called into question. And as the figures on the consequences of the epidemic began to circulate in the Nursing homes, we were struck, without questioning their validity and usefulness, by the very limited short-term nature of the measures announced by the President in Mulhouse with great solemnity and emphasis. Errors in the operational management of the crisis and just as many communication errors, which all the opposition forces immediately seized upon in order to better prepare political life after the end of the confinement, not to mention the criminal complaints announced by various groups.
The Government has drawn the consequences of this drop in confidence, since it has gradually oriented its communication towards ordering masks: four hundred million at the beginning of the week, rising to six hundred million and then to one billion on Saturday evening. Masks and screening tests have become the priorities of its action and communication. In their press conference on Saturday, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Health also affirmed their desire for transparency by giving the floor to scientists who have expressed their uncertainties and doubts as well as their knowledge. This is an essential first step, but restoring confidence will take a long time, assuming no new mistakes are made. The title of Olivier Véran’s interview in Le Journal du Dimanche “there was not a single delay” could raise doubts. And in communication, as with epidemics, relapses often have more serious consequences.