HOW DO WE STAY HEALTHY AS WE REOPEN ECONOMIES?
Following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, countries in the East African region quickly locked their borders and shut down all “non-essential” activities and a lot of businesses closed or instituted work from home policies. These steps seem to have been effective and have slowed down the spread of the virus significantly and have kept it much lower than the disastrous levels predicted at the outset.
These gains have come at a painful cost to regional and local economies with reduced productivity and income and now governments are looking at gradually reopening their economies with Tanzania, for instance, authorizing the return of students to secondary and tertiary institutions of learning.
Businesses in the private sector will also be following suit and restarting their activities as society tries to return to full economic productivity. As we do so, we have to be mindful of the fact that there is a risk of restarting community infections and thus undoing all our hard won gains. This is where effective communication strategies are required.
Private businesses need to be clear in their messaging to allay safety concerns among their staff and customers. As employees return to offices and factories, they need to feel secure that their health will be protected. This will also serve to inspire confidence in suppliers and customers that the company is doing all that is necessary to protect people’s health.
In parallel with communications to employees and staff, businesses also need to make their customers aware of what they are doing to ensure their health. Customers will appreciate information on sanitation, employee health checks, how employees will interact with customers and what behaviour is expected of the customers. – Will they be required to wear masks? What distancing rules apply? What facilities for sanitation will be provided?
FleishmanHillard, a global PR and marketing agency specializing in crisis communications, offers these tips for business communicators:
- Make sure employees are comfortable and aware of what you are doing to ensure safety. If employees don’t believe in what you are doing, everyone they interact with will feel that skepticism.
- Tell people from the beginning that reopening will evolve – based on data that you and public health officials have.
- Provide clear direction such as signs (where appropriate), modeled behaviour from senior executives (social distancing, face masks, work from home when possible) and direction from managers to reinforce behaviours the company wants to see.
For regional authorities, among their many other considerations, they need to keep an eye on public behaviours, since everyone’s behaviour affects everyone else. They will need to maintain high levels of public awareness while also fighting misinformation that could lead to risky behaviour in individuals and groups. Taking the example of school reopening in Tanzania, the government has taken steps to communicate to parents, teachers and students what steps are being taken by schools to prepare, what steps must be taken by parents and students before returning to school and to all, what behaviour will be required as terms progress, such as mask wearing and social distancing rules. This has all helped somewhat to alleviate concerns for all concerned.
Misinformation has been rife throughout the duration of this pandemic and, in some cases, has led to regrettable actions and attitudes, such as racist reactions, self-medication and drug overdoses and other unsafe practices. Having good, well-informed communication strategies that are based on regional and local authority guidelines and updates is a very powerful tool in combating this dangerous trend.
As we move through the phases of reopening and people gain confidence in resuming their activities, the other danger to watch out for would be complacency. there will be a critical need, going forward, to constantly remind ourselves and each other of the rules we all need to follow to maintain the gains that have come at great sacrifice.
Good, clearly defined health communication strategies will be key for successful outcomes in the region as we reopen businesses and restart social activities to rebuild and strengthen our economies.