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Communicating Public Health and Social Justice

The way authority figures such as media and political leaders communicate with the public can save or endanger lives, and it can challenge or reinforce injustice. This year, Rwanda and the United Kingdom have implemented opposite approaches.

KIGALI – As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, communication is a double-edged sword. It is one of the most powerful tools for changing behaviors. It can create awareness of – and compassion for – the plight of vulnerable groups, which suffer disproportionately during crises. When paired with a strong equity agenda and credible leadership, it can drive positive and inclusive action. But when it is misused – distorted by false assumptions, shortsightedness, and narrow self-interest – communication can be a dangerous weapon.

A comparison between the COVID-19 response in United Kingdom and Rwanda illustrates this dichotomy. The UK’s response suffered from a lack of rapid coherent political engagement and action, and its population was initially less responsive to public-health messages. Communication failures played a significant role in this.

The government began undermining itself early on, when it vastly underestimated the COVID-19 death toll. Leaders continued to provide contradictory information and examples, causing widespread confusion about the guidelines and undermining faith in government further. A recent survey showed that public confidence in government has yet to recover from the flagrant violation of lockdown rules in May by Dominic Cummings, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief adviser.