Issue 1
Monday, 02 March 2020
Charles Darwin University
Professor Douglas Paton’s research findings call for an “all-hazards” approach to disaster risk reduction
Professor Douglas Paton’s research findings call for an “all-hazards” approach to disaster risk reduction

'Grassroots approach needed' in epidemic readiness

By Andrew Hall

A disaster readiness and recovery expert says a “top-down” approach to informing people about the impacts of the COVID-19 (formerly known as novel coronavirus) outbreak might impede effective preparation and increase anxiety levels. 

CDU Professor of Psychology and Director of the Australasian RISC Research Centre, Douglas Paton has an extensive research portfolio in community pandemic preparedness for bird and swine flu that highlights the importance of complementing medical, border control, quarantine and surveillance strategies with those facilitating community preparedness. 

“A ‘one size fits all’ pandemic warning strategy risks distancing communities, reducing trust in agencies and diminishing the likelihood that advice will be followed,” Professor Paton said.

“Highlighting the introduction of border control activities, for instance, can have the effect of lulling communities into a false sense of security that triggers a phenomenon called ‘risk compensation’ whereby people think a crisis is being managed for them.

“Risk compensation leads to a situation where people believe they don’t have to do anything themselves to prepare for adverse events. People effectively transfer all responsibility for pandemic management to civic agencies.” 

Professor Paton’s research has identified how media coverage highlighting that governments and their authorities are in control of any given situation, when this might not actually be the case, can create unanticipated problems should a community response strategy be required. 

“People become less trusting, more anxious and less willing to take responsibility for their safety,” he said.

“Epidemic management strategies needed to be seen in relation to the wider context of overall societal emergency preparedness as part of an ‘all-hazards’ approach to disaster risk reduction.” 

Professor Paton said mainstream media tended to “play” to elements in society that exhibited “negative outcome expectancy”. 

“If media sources treat the coronavirus as an ‘entity’ and include emotive terms such as ‘killer coronavirus’, people will be dissuaded from preparing. It is more effective to talk to people about the consequences exposure to the virus creates and delivering an achievable range of protective responses that people can do to manage these consequences,” he said.