“This is the time for facts, not fear. This is the time for science, not rumours. This is the time for solidarity, not stigma.” These words from Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization are helpful at a time when global concern over the coronavirus is mounting. The Public Health Agency of Canada reports that the risk to Canadians is low and Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, is reminding the public to beware of misinformation being spread on social media. But fear is a real emotion and to dismiss it out of hand is not helpful.
Risk = Hazard + Outrage
Risk communications expert Dr. Peter Sandman developed the “Risk = Hazard + Outrage” formula as a way of helping governments and corporations manage public reaction to events. He points to the fact that risk is a subjective concept and communicating about it is tricky given the low correlation between danger and outrage. What does Sandman mean by low correlation? His research shows that the degree to which we should be worried about a high risk doesn’t always match the level of risk we feel. One needs only to look at the anti-vaxxer movement to see this play out. Something that poses a high risk (e.g., contracting measles) doesn’t evoke a high degree of concern in this group of people, whereas the thing that is measurably low risk (e.g., being vaccinated) causes outrage.
According to Sandman, risk communications has four purposes depending upon the public’s level of hazard and outrage:
- When hazard is high and outrage is low, the task is “precaution advocacy” – alerting insufficiently upset people to serious risks. “Watch out!”
- When hazard is low and outrage is high, the task is “outrage management” – reassuring excessively upset people about small risks. “Calm down.”
- When hazard is high and outrage is also high, the task is “crisis communication” – helping appropriately upset people cope with serious risks. “We’ll get through this together.”
- When hazard and outrage are both intermediate, you’re in the “sweet spot” – dialoguing with interested people about a significant but not urgent risk. “And what do you think?”
How can we use Sandman’s work to help our school community talk about risk surrounding the coronavirus? It’s complicated because the experience of our community members is not homogenous. For many students, the calm they feel is reinforced by their geographic distance from the epicentre of the virus and the reassuring messages delivered by local Public Health. They may feel such a low level of concern, in fact, that they fail to follow recommended safety precautions such as frequent hand sanitizing. For other students, those with families in China, the hazard feels exceptionally high, and rightly so. Their families are at greater risk, and the daily messages these students are receiving from home beg them to be vigilant, to take no chances, to protect themselves at all costs. It would be insensitive and patronizing to respond to their worry and fear with a message of “calm down.”
Sandman notes that, “risks controlled by others arouse a lot more outrage than risks we control ourselves.” This is relevant to schools. Imagine a student who feels anxious about the spread of the virus watching another student ignore precautions like sneezing into your arm. Think of the emotions they might experience. “Don’t be irresponsible!” from one student is met with, “Don’t be such a worrywart!” from another, and tensions ensue. The challenge for schools is to meet the needs of both groups. Finding ways to help students who are anxious feel in control to the greatest degree possible, while correcting those who arguably show too little concern for our collective health is a good place to start. At the same time, school leaders need to model and encourage empathy and promote understanding of others’ experiences.
As a school, we follow the advice of Benjamin Disraeli who said, “I am prepared for the worst, but hope for the best.” We want our community both here and abroad to take comfort in knowing that the safety and well-being of our girls, along with our faculty and staff, are foremost in our mind. We are prepared and will remain so. During the days and weeks ahead, we will communicate openly and often, while maintaining business as usual. Fortunately for us, business as usual means a good dose of daily laughter, a lot of school spirit and a bit of hard work thrown in for good measure.
We encourage any parent who has questions to be in touch directly with the School. We are here to help and no concern is too small.