Pandemic compliance rules confused by misinformation
With COVID again on the rise, and the Australian Government conducting a 12-month review into the country’s pandemic response, experts say clear and consistent national public health messages about disease transmission and cross-border management is crucial for future compliance.
A new study in the international journal Policy and Society* found gaps in knowledge about the first and subsequent COVID-19 virus prevention led to sometimes confusing government messaging, which often generated mistrust and suspicion of public health policies.
“Extensive public opposition to masks, vaccines, contact tracing and travel restrictions arose partly because of inconsistencies in the developing science and the way that the science was communicated to the Australian public,” said Flinders University academic Dr Melissa-Ellen Dowling, a senior lecturer in digital technology, security and governance with the Jeff Bleich Centre.
“Gaps in knowledge about the virus manifested in inconsistent and at times confusing messaging from the government, which generated significant suspicion of public health policy.
“In some cases, this suspicion manifested in non-compliance and undermined the government’s efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19.”
As new infectious variants emerge, Australians are again looking for the latest information to avoid the disease.
Not only did the new and dangerous pandemic challenge the epidemiological expertise of state and international health bodies, health services in almost every state were overwhelmed dealing with millions of cases while the virus claimed lives. State managers were faced with urgent public health strategies while coping with rising mistrust of the government’s handling of the crisis.
Strict ordinances included isolating in “lockdown” for days and weeks, rules to wear masks in public spaces and to receive vaccinations, and more.
Securing public compliance for such measures, after the monumental technical achievement of producing effective vaccines, became a universal challenge for all state health managers.
Using more than 15,000 COVID-19 social media posts shared on the Telegram platform between March 2020 and March 2021, Dr Dowling and co-author University of Adelaide Associate Professor of International Security Dr Tim Legrand examined the nexus between policy compliance and consent, legitimacy, expertise and trust.
By analysis of these posts, the study reveals the distrust in ‘the science’ and government experts amid calls from sceptic groups for noncompliance with public health measures.
By 13 May 2021, Australia-based public groups on Facebook advocating noncompliance with government health measures had increased their membership by 280% (Reset Australia, 2021). More than 115,000 members were active and responsible for over 2 million comments on these sites.
In these spaces, misinformation flourished, including claims that the pandemic was a government conspiracy, the COVID-19 vaccines were harmful, the virus originated in a Chinese bioweapons laboratory, 5G mobile phone signals were spreading the virus, ‘Big Pharma’ had contrived the pandemic to sell their products, and so on.
Failure by federal and state agencies to cultivate trust can lead to a crisis of public confidence, the study warns, with significant downstream consequences for compliance with public policy initiatives.
“The compliance-legitimacy matrix offers a useful tool for policymakers to anticipate and address the public’s objections and diffuse their fears.”
The Prime Minister Anthony Albanese recently announced a nationwide inquiry into Australia’s COVID-19 pandemic response. The inquiry will examine the federal and state governments’ response to the pandemic, including governance, key health response measures, broader health support, support for industry and businesses, financial support and advice on future pandemics.
At this stage the inquiry will not be investigating major decisions taken by individual state governments, such as lockdowns and school closures.
The COVID-19 pandemic represented one of the most pressing global health crises since the Spanish Flu killed 50 million people in 1918. The World Health Organization estimates that by September 2022, more than 600 million people had suffered a COVID-19 infection, with 6.4 million deaths.
“Learning from the lessons in trust, expertise and legitimacy furnished by non-compliance during the COVID-19 pandemic will be pivotal in such future government responses to transboundary crises,” the study concludes.
*The article, “I do not consent”: political legitimacy, misinformation and the compliance challenge in Australia’s COVID-19 policy response (2023) by Melissa-Ellen Dowling and Tim Legrand, has been published in Policy and Society. https://doi.org/10.1093/polsoc/puad018
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