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Grassroots approach needed in epidemic preparedness: researcher

Professor Douglas Paton
Professor Douglas Paton’s research findings call for an ‘all-hazards’ approach to disaster risk reduction.

A Charles Darwin University (CDU) disaster readiness and recovery expert says a “top-down” approach to informing people about the impacts of the novel coronavirus might impede effective preparation and increase anxiety levels.

Professor of Psychology and Director of the Australasian RISC Research Centre at CDU Douglas Paton has an extensive research portfolio into 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.

“Pandemic 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.

Professor Paton said people were also more likely to respond to information that came from community-based sources rather than “experts”.

“This means that formal communication between communities and health agencies is more effective if based on community empowerment processes,” he said.

“A collaborative approach also helps reduce the sense that people have of being bombarded with information from multiple sources with frequently conflicting messages. 

“People want messages about specific actions that they can take to protect themselves and their families and to mitigate any consequences, and they want transparent and honest communication where both good and bad news is conveyed.”

He also said it was important to consider the multicultural nature of Australian society and that a cross-cultural approach to disaster risk reduction and recovery increased the applicability of communications in multicultural settings.