B.C. can learn something from Francesco Aquilini’s pandemic lesson

When Vancouver Canucks’ owner Francesco Aquilini took to Twitter to fire the team’s national anthem singer, Mark Donnelly, he delivered a strong message about public safety: wear a mask or face consequences. He did what public health officials have so far failed to do. He sent a clear, concise message, and he backed it with demonstrable punishment. 

Imagine for a moment that Aquilini didn’t swiftly fire Donnelly, but instead gave him a slap on the wrist. That would have relayed that he isn’t overly concerned with public health orders, the safety of his hundreds of employees, or the public his businesses rely on to survive.

Confusion is dangerous

B.C.’s primary objective has been to manage COVID-19 cases to prevent hospitals from being burdened when the real objective should have been to bring the case count to zero. But here we are down a rabbit hole of ad hoc restrictions that are confusing. 

Clear messages can influence behaviour, which is what we need in a public health crisis. Confusing messages are dangerous, yet since the start of the global pandemic, our federal and provincial health officers have muddled several key messages. As a result, they created confusion that led to a ‘collective action’ problem with people making their own judgements about how directives apply specifically to them. 

Why is it okay to fly to the United States, yet it isn’t okay to drive across the border? Why is Canada still accepting international flights (especially from places with major outbreaks) when non-essential travel is all but banned? Why has B.C. mandated that we can only mingle with people from our own household, but then offered alternatives to certain groups? How does any of this protect anyone’s bubble?

And when it comes to masks? As a friend said to me, the confusion generated by top health officials is enough to make a child snap his crayon in half.

What’s more, when it comes to the bigger picture – the impact of COVID19 – B.C. has failed to address all demographics, instead focusing almost entirely on the elderly and hospital resources. This has given others a sense of liberation, particularly youngsters who have become super-spreaders.

B.C. needs a stronger tone

In the early days, Dr. Bonnie Henry got the attention and cooperation of British Columbians using her natural power of vulnerability – a trembling voice, tear-filled eyes, and a motherly tone. Scared of the unknown, we all hung on to someone comforting to lead us. Her approach worked … for a while.

Today’s COVID-19 picture is different from the spring. In crisis management, it is imperative to look the best current view and adapt accordingly.

Speaking with numerous friends and clients, we all agree that B.C. now needs a firmer tone – the parent must now scold the child. Non-compliance must come with real, demonstrable punishment. No more slogans and catchphrases. We need action. 

Anti-mask protests are a perfect example of non action, as is Halloween when hundreds of youngsters defied public health orders by taking to the streets in an organized party on Granville Street. The images shared on social media show Vancouver Police officers watching idly, even though they have the power to issue fines to people violating health orders. The party ensued and as Dr. Henry predicted, COVID numbers jumped several days later. 

How to get collective action

Collective action is critical to managing COVID19 and avoiding another lockdown. Indeed, a key path to influencing public behaviour and achieving better outcomes is through consistent messages, and that includes enforcement, perhaps the strongest message of all.

Like Aquilini and the Canucks, if someone is countering your safety message and protocols that you have carefully implemented to remain operational, you must act swiftly and decisively or damage your credibility. That is what B.C. is facing now.

 

Renu Bakshi (renu@renubakshi.com) is a senior communications strategist who specializes in crisis management and media training. Through COVID-19, she has been helping clients – including B.C.’s ambulance paramedics – engage employees, the public and stakeholders through challenging times.