On the occasion of the early spring… Corona and support for measures in Belgium – a case study

Author: Manu Steens

In this article I write my own opinion, not that of any organization.

The last days the weather was nice, last weekend there was even (again) a surprise of the trains filled with day trippers who wanted to go to the sea, and afterwards all wanted to go home again . According to the press, it was a huge mass of people at the sea side. The press had interviewed a few people. That gave an inspiration to apply my tool again to the support of the measures. The question I ask myself is, which aspects of support are failing here? Why did people seem to take a massive risk of contamination just to be able to go to sea? A challenge to try to measure support once more.

My analysis comes to the following color palette: (click for a better view)

Discussion:

Legitimacy: people indicated that they knew that the risk was still there, that it might not be a good idea to be packed together on a train.

Coherence of the target group through proximity of the issue to the target group: Lately there have been many people who do not have a dead or sick person in their personal circle of acquaintances.

Effectiveness: because more people hear that the figures fluctuate around a very high number of patients in hospitals and ICU they may doubt whether their own efforts really matter?

Purposefulness: the web pages of Sciensano show to anyone who wants to know clearly the evolution of the vaccinations. However, a barometer had been announced  and never came, vaccinations that were promised to the masses by saying that the end of the tunnel is in sight, but are dependent on the supplier who does not seem to deliver, while ambiguity remains why… All of that make the whole less transparent. There remain many unknowns. The people may even have lost purpose.

Efficiency: the government is insufficiently successful in showing in a transparent manner where the shoe is pinching. Demonstrating the effectiveness of the government’s own actions is done insufficient.

Perseverance: the people lose their discipline. There has been (for a long time now) corona fatigue. Many begin to believe their own false hope that there is no harm in it all, and take risks as a result.

Leadership: about this I do not look at the situation. It is unclear to me whether actors or other public figures with a good example have any influence at the moment. So I’m currently leaving it open.

Internalized: the people see the restrictions increasingly as a mandatory process. People probably know very well about themselves whether they are showing the behavior of a super diffuser, but partly due to the lack of perseverance and too little inspiration from above, they let themselves go.

Reputation: about this I do not look at the situation. I don’t know if people are currently attached to their personal reputation or if corona can continue to be seen as a force majeure. So I’m leaving it open at the moment.

Conclusion: there is a lot of red on the canvas. That is not good. It seems that the negative hope, the hope that it doesn’t do all that much harm, is winning over common sense. It has been stretched for too long a time. But what needs to be done is clear: persist and vaccinate as much as possible. We will desperately need that.

How about post-crisis with covid-19

Author: Manu Steens

In this article I write my own opinion.

With multiple vaccines and the global roll-out of vaccination in the pipeline, it is not only useful now but also desirable to take a look at what might be called the post-crisis phase.

In this post-crisis phase of covid-19 there will be opportunities. It must be a time for psychological, physical, social, emotional and economic recovery. This applies both on an individual level and on a social level. But it must also be a time of honest self-analysis of the crisis approach (by organizations and governments) , of lessons Identified in all sections of society, whereby doubts about yourself as a person, about your organization as a company and the authorities are central. In effective crisis management, there is always a post-crisis moment for debriefing with comments from the sidelines and commendations of the achievements. This self-assessment must be used for small and large improvements to the own operation, structure, culture, … of the organization, and corrections at all levels. One must dare to take a view on processes, systems and procedures up to the smallest details. This improves insight into their own functioning. The assessment provides the opportunity to apply renewed and especially motivated new insights . The fact that adjustments can be implemented suggests that the anxiety because of the perception of risks and resistance due to uncertainty as to change (through insights by the results obtained in the crisis), be transcended. Appropriate actions provide the basic operation for the prevention and processing of future crises. That way the organization can learn, modify administration and initiate a wide variety of changes. This under the motto “never again”. Because a crisis is often transient, the suffering takes an end and the memory of society is sometimes too short, the moment par excellence to make use of these levers must not be lost. Action must therefore be taken post-crisis if the innovation opportunities are to be used optimally.

Unfortunately, there is always collateral damage. People or organizations that will not be able to reach the post-crisis phase (alone). A crisis like covid-19 includes therefore often media attacks on governments and their agencies . The opportunity to provide answers to urgent needs that were first only latent, makes the organizations stop for a moment and often marks a turning point for these organizations, but also for society.

To thoroughly analyze crisis management afterwards, three types of “investigative board ‘s” are needed : one for the organization, one for a society within a country, and the authorities in the countries, and across countries. They represent with regard to society, every citizen as an individual and the victims and their families the fact that that the problem is being tackled on a permanent basis. Because the board represents the public as the ultimate stakeholder, they can be considered as legitimate, and as authority for the investigation.

The goal of the boards in a post-crisis phase is a permanent solution, which includes a pandemic plan with international cooperation as one of my wishes. That is possible when uncertainty is reduced, legitimacy is achieved, and each of the three boards proves to make efforts to establish a basis to address future crises as well as the consequences thereof. Intensive communication will have to be conducted about this, in order to continuously convince and keep the public informed of progress and planned actions. Note that the effects of actions, findings and conclusions in the accompanying investigations of the board can counteract these effects. Therefore, great skill in conducting in-depth objective investigations, drawing conclusions and making appropriate recommendations without external influences (industry or other governments) is required.

Each board is supported by experts from a large number of disciplines in such an assignment. In order to work effectively on solutions in the aftermath of the crisis, a 360 ° approach of the problem is required. This requires specialists who work together in a “modular system”. There are reasons for this

  • Extra expertise and hands at work for generating solutions
  • Direct access to much more data and decisions based on all available information (which is then much broader), where possible without involvement of the crisis teams that did their work during the crisis.

These experts also feed their own organization with information  from the research which they consider necessary. Factors affecting the size and diversity of the expert teams determine the severity of the pandemic , the methods that are involved (here organizational methods , policy action and vaccination technology), the collateral damage that occurs, the chance that a detailed narrative report will be written, numbers and circumstances of injured and deceased persons, public interest and the chance of a formal “board hearing” (committee hearing). The degree of public interest is perhaps the most complex to estimate here.

The expert teams and assessors must take the time to make a thorough analysis of the pandemic. Their report should not be actively public (due to too much technical detail, and potential privacy issues). It must however support the report of the board (committee) which have to be transparent to stakeholders and the public.

The board / committee then decides on a “public hearing” based on

  • Interest of the citizens.
  • Severity of the pandemic.
  • Quality of successes and severity of errors in dealing with the pandemic.
  • Benefits of all kinds with regard to a future pandemic. (e.g. when citizens, society and governments know how to arm themselves against another pandemic thanks to science)

A public hearing is the first real opportunity for the media to know something about the post crisis, but it is also a first chance for the organizations and the authorities and their board to communicate something to the press for their own benefit. So it must be thoroughly prepared. So if a party involved in the investigation wants something in the press, this must be discussed with his board in order to avoid contradiction.

Because contradiction causes anxiety and uncertainty, and even gives the impression after the crisis that the situation is not under control.

“Higher – Lower” and Covid-19

Author: Manu Steens

In this article I will tell you my own opinion. It is by no means the intention to present dealing with the pandemic as a simple matter. But there are some simple principles that strike me.

In the past, “higher-lower” was a game on television. Never before had I thought that these two words could be so important in assessing the need for action in a pandemic.

Currently, the federal government makes use of the services of specialists: virologists, biostatisticians , epidemiologists, etc. They can be used at any time to draw up difficult mathematical models to estimate the pandemic and to distil difficult indicators of the evolution from them.

How could it have been assumed with higher-lower at the beginning of September how it would evolve at the end of September and the weeks after ? (The next few months remain to be seen, but our experience with the first wave tells us that this wave is not over yet, and it is going to be difficult.)

Using three qualitative, easy to understand indicators as follows:

  1. What was the situation with the number of infections in Belgium at the beginning of September with regard to the number of infections at the very beginning of the first wave? Higher! Much higher ! And what about the number of super spreaders? Also much higher in September.
  2. What was the spread of the disease in the country with regard to the early onset of the first wave in early 2020? Also much higher.
  3. How did people behave in relieving the measures in terms of elation and carelessness? – higher ! And that is normal. If you doubt that, you should see a bunch of cows roaming about after a long winter, and then released into the pasture. People who have been a long time in lock-down have the same desire to be free again. And that behavior became part of the new normal. Goodbye caution. Goodbye discipline.

Is the result surprising, then, that there will be a more severe wave after September, which can whip higher than the first wave?

And that’s not even the question I want to talk about. What I want to talk about are lessons for the near future.

Is it inconceivable that there will be another wave after this? And what should we do about it?

We will not be able to do much about the first two indicators. As for the first, we are not even going to know if all the sick have been healed, and that no one is a carrier anymore. As for the second, mutatis mutandis: we cannot say much about the spread if we are not 100% sure who is still a carrier and who is not.

That is why it is important to do something with the third indicator. This is currently done by reducing the transmissibility of the virus as much as possible. In this way they try to prevent the spread in order not to overload the hospital system, if possible until there is a vaccine, and preferably forever.

But that requires discipline, both during the approach to reverse the new wave and the period afterwards to prevent another wave. So the discipline must be higher ! And that regardless of the precise measures in a ministerial order, or in the protocols, or in the local measures.

The search for exceptions, loopholes, back doors,… to do their thing must therefore be lower !

Disinformation and Covid-19

Author: Manu Steens

A friend wrote me an email. He cited a number of websites and wrote:

” I must say, I believe less and less the prevailing views from the mainstream media … ”

By the mainstream media he meant, I understand, those media that let the authorities speak. He also provided a video message from ‘ the-iceberg ‘ and a Dutch version of it , as an alternative . These provide information that is contrary to the message of, yes, our governments.

In my view a case of misinformation.

But how do you recognize misinformation when people with a high IQ fall for it time and time again?

There are some basic rules that you can keep in mind when it comes to communication. Some should be used more in all communication, others should not:

  1. Simple words , not too much expert language.
  2. Support the spoken and / or written text with visual material.
  3. Use recognizable statements that could have been heard elsewhere ( familiarity )
  4. Use ” fluency ” : how easily something can be processed by the brain, eg text in an easy to read font .
  5. References to experts, but not to their work, which is difficult to trace.
  6. Use people’s gullibility to really get to know it all. (eg by an easy and associative name like ‘ the iceberg ‘: people become curious about what lies beneath the surface).
  7. Using figures without framing it, or material and images that are even irrelevant.
  8. Repetition of the desired statement.
  9. Use a good speaking rhythm to make it interesting. (The infotainment effect)

The video messages can be seen on:

https://the-iceberg.net/  (English)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrri7-uvuqI&feature=em-uploademail (Dutch version)

When I analyze the Dutch version, I have the following reservations:

They remain very vague in terms of “the independent scientists”: I don’t know any myself. Each of the experts is paid by an interested party. So I don’t think there are any of them “independent”. Every top research is either sponsored by a government (often via universities) or by a (in this case mostly pharmaceutical) company.

So far the independence of the scientists they claim to cite. On the English website there is a whole list of names with impressive titles . No reference whatsoever to their relevant work on which they claim to be relying.

Furthermore, statistics are shown of the number of deaths per 1 000 000 inhabitants. This is not scientific, because every country counts differently. Besides, the correlation with lock -down, which they claim to show that would be zero, cannot be demonstrated that way.

The number of corona deaths counted according to WHO is for Belgium 10x that of the flu deaths counted according to WHO standards. A factor of 10: that is an order of magnitude larger, and it is not over yet. So it is not comparable to a ‘simple flu’ . That was one of the first misconceptions that was common in Europe, and of which no one knows where it originated.

The medication which “has been proven to work” according to the video, has been shown not to work. Yet this is maintained, as if someone has to get rid of a large stock. The fact that this has the chance to further become its own self-fulfilling prophecy is due to the fact that for a long time it was incorrectly predicted to be the solution. After all, repetition makes it recognizable.

This video scores very high in terms of infotainment content, but it is the wrong info. And in addition, in infotainment in general, they often make fun of science. For example, it is incorrectly claimed in the video that the lockdown would have been imposed only after the flattened peak, which they say is a “normal seasonal epidemic event”.

 

The need for civic engagement and clarity at Covid-19

Author: Manu Steens

Two articles on the website of the VRT appealed to me. They block the seriousness of the situation:

– Microbiologist Herman Goossens: “Insufficient Security Council measures, we are heading for disaster if we don’t act quickly”.

– Antwerp governor pleads: “Please limit your social contact to your family or choose two regular friends”.

The governor also said in the interview, “Be tougher on yourself than what’s allowed.”

This is not simple: it requires engagement and participation from the people.

Then, of course, the question arises: “What is engagement?”. And what are decisive factors at the government that demands engagement from the citizen?

According to John C. Besley (in Chapter22: ‘Public Engagement in Risk-Related Decision Making’ in ‘The SAGE Handbook of Risk Communication’), the fact that public engagement can involve a huge variety of activities is a stumbling block to transform available information into knowledge.

According to Creighton, public engagement is “the process by which public concerns, needs and values are incorporated into governmental and corporate decision making. It is two-way communication and interaction, with the overall goal of better decisions that are supported by the public”.

There may also be mechanisms whereby citizens have some degree of control over decisions. This then is a continuum that goes from agreeing with what the government wants up to becoming citizens who have a meaningful voice, and are recognized for this by the government.

An important parameter, according to the literature, to get participation is the confidence citizens have in the decision makers, as well as the more they know about the situation in which they have to participate. For the latter, a pervasive communication with press conferences and much more than that is a permanent necessity.

In our country at the moment, it seems that it is mainly the citizens agreement with what is decided that takes place. There are very few citizens initiatives. This seems to indicate that the citizens look to the government with the question “tell us”. But also with the question “save us, because we do not know the solution ourselves”. Decisions can therefore be tough, and as long as they are made authentically and offer the solution in the long term (if necessary), the citizen will continue to agree.

The solutions must also be clear.

This implementation of measures always requires clarity. How do you do this? Goal: defeat the virus. Operational measures are therefore necessary. How do you clearly describe the goals and actions operationally and why do you want to do that? In his book “Your Best Year Ever” Hyatt writes about a well-known method: SMARTER. How can we apply that to the actions we want to roll out?

SMARTER stands for Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Risky, Time-keyed, Exciting, Relevant.

The idea is that we first have to write down the goals. In this crisis, there is only one goal. To defeat the disease. But that in itself is not SMARTER.

This could be a proposal:

Specific: get the number of infections to zero to prevent a third wave. We do this by complying with the six golden measures and limiting our social contacts to our own family and otherwise to a maximum of two friends a week. The intention is to get the R-value back below “1”. However, all this is not specific enough. Therefore, to make things operational and specific, there are the MB and the FAQ. Unfortunately, in the past it has already been shown that these will always be incomplete, because one cannot summarize the lives of 11 million people on about 40 pages of paper. But the rules are there, both in the letter and in the spirit, and people are asked to take their own responsibility with common sense when their situation is not literally described.

Measurable: through testing and contact tracing, no new infections are detected. This is a criterion that clearly states when the downward tail of the new infections reaches zero. This is only possible if indeed we get the R-value under “1”. This is also measurable, through the numbers of for example hospitals that are passed on to the government. But measurable also means that the police must be able to check compliance. Such as leaving your details when visiting a cafe or restaurant. An example of what is very measurable here is a name tag.

Actionable: I translate this here as feasible and useful: it’s about what we do. Here the FAQs are useful again. The six golden rules are not difficult to follow. But the question was asked whether it would not be better to limit ourselves to much smaller bubbles. That in itself is not actionable: it is not useful, for example, to measure your social contacts. Better is “Find a maximum of 2 friends per week instead of 15”. This is useful because it is based on a useful verb: search. Not more generic, often unclear statements with verbs like “are” or “have”. So choice of verb is very important in communication.

Risky. Ugh. Normally it says something like “Reasonable”. But using the word Reasonable makes that we often do not challenge ourselves enough to set the bar at a high enough level. Reasonableness encourages you to make it easy with quickly achievable objectives. A bubble with 15 friends is easily achievable. It seems reasonable. But it’s not. It’s certainly not a challenge, but more than that, it’s a number where people stop counting. 15 seems infinite, so we’ll do whatever. And before you know it, you’ve got a lot more contacts than 15 and the infections are rising. Meeting just two good friends is much more challenging. You have to make choices, decide who you prefer and why. It’s more confrontational, the bar is much higher to realize it.

Time-keyed: the measure of the bubble is the clearest example here. Two friends, who are allowed to change per week. But it doesn’t always have to be time intervals. They can also be frequencies. This concept also divides the goals into “achievement goals” and “habit goals”. An example of an achievement goal is that you buy name tags to leave behind in a café that you visited to be available for testing and tracing. An example of a habit goal is that you always put on a mask when travelling by train. The goals should become a habit as much as possible. Then for many people it goes by itself.

Exciting: “What in God’s name is exciting about such goals and measures?” Actually, internal motivation is meant here. It is an important characteristic that people are intrinsically motivated to make them achieve their goals. Good health is an example of this. I assume that everyone loves themselves enough to find their own health important enough to be motivated. So contrary to what the word suggests, it is the feeling of concern that is important here. Worrying about your neighbor and yourself. Let that concern inspire you to take good care of yourself, your family, and your friends and neighbors.

Relevant: this is here with regard to the crisis situation (including other people) and also your personal health interests. This criteria is the bottom line. Effective goals and measures are relevant. It has everything to do with giving direction. This gives you the opportunity to check your gut feeling before committing to the measures. It is here that everything can go wrong if we are not careful. There are four criteria for measures you can check here: is the measure proportional, prudent, efficient, and effective? Note: what is “proportional” doesn’t necessarily have to be easy, it’s more in the sense of “necessary”. This criterion of relevance gives the necessary pressure in a crisis like this: the pressure can be social, financial, professional, … whatever. This helps to explain why challenging a crisis like this is no easy task. It is therefore essential not to oppose each other. Be stricter on yourself than what is asked for.

More information: