Will Coronavirus/Covid-19 change the world...also for the better?

It's almost flagrantly insensitive to even ask a question like this at a time when thousands of people die of what some continue to undermine in the face of facts and figures, portraying COVID-19 as a flu-like infection at best and criticising the international media (and governments) for blowing the whole thing out of proportion. With Italy alone reporting a 1,016 to 1,266 death-rate increase overnight, it should probably be more than enough to stop EVERYONE from continuing along the path of cynicism, denial, conspiracy theories and - for lack of a better phrase - radical ignorance. Given the Chinese, Italian, Spanish, British and American experience in battling the coronavirus on their home turf, it is quite possible humanity will learn some very important lessons from the global coronavirus pandemic, once it has achieved the 'manageable problem' status, which is probably not any time soon.
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The pains of risk mitigation: a bitter pill to swallow for many

It was Friday, March 13th, when I started writing this article, and according to the most recent data shared by the Ministry of Health in Poland, there were 68 reported cases of coronavirus infections in Poland. Since yesterday, the number has gone up by a record figure of 25 new confirmed cases (93 in total). Every day brings new government decisions, almost every one of which has significant social, economic, and, last but not least, psychological implications.

Increasingly, opinions are being voiced that both the broader international context and the nature of initiatives undertaken by the government in Poland provide more than enough justification for officially declaring the state of emergency, which, in addition to its inevitably adverse psychological effect, would also impact the date of the upcoming presidential elections - not something Poland's ruling coalition, headed by Law and Justice (PiS), would necessarily want, for various reasons.

This week, the Polish government boldly introduced what many see as a plethora of drastic or radical measures, depending on your particular vantage point. It involved the following decisions and recommendations, among others:

  • Events cancelled/banned (effective for two weeks, starting from 12 March)
  • Schools suspended for two weeks (all the way from nursuries to higher-education institutions)
  • Theatres and cinemas (closed for two weeks)
  • Controls to be temporarily restored on all Polish borders (announced yesterday)
  • A variety of temporary travel restrictions (esp. ban on foreigners entering Poland, effective March 15)
  • 14-day home quarantine requirement for Poles returning from abroad
  • International air/rail travel restrictions
  • Commercial activity restrictions: restaurants, pubs and cafes (take-away offer allowed)
  • Recommendations from religious authorities aimed at minimum mass attendance in churches in favour of televised (Sunday service)

Further recommendations follow international guidelines related to gatherings, personal hygiene, keeping at least 1-metre distance in conversation and avoiding potential exposure in other ways, to mention only a few.

Film Music Festival in Kraków

Focus on quality communication and emotional well-being

During the coronavirus crisis to date, the government has relied predominantly on its press briefings and media coverage to disseminate its key decisions and actions required, which is a perfectly natural thing to do under the circumstances. It's now high time, however, to proceed to the stage where well-structured, up-to-date information is available directly from government sources and websites, in Polish and English. At this point, it should be clear to everyone that if you need reliable, up-to-date information (regardless of when you need it, who you are and why you need it), this is where you will find it, or, at least, this is where you will find competent guidance aggregated from other sources. As a communications professional, I have no doubt there is a lot of space for improvement along the following criteria:

  1. Clarity/awareness regarding official sources of updates and information. If this website is the key communication channel used by the government (in addition to daily press briefings), it could definitely be improved functionally and structurally (design/layout/information priorities) but, more importantly, kept much more up to date on daily statistics. Try finding out, for example, how many COVID cases there are in Poland at a given moment, not to mention trends, testing methodology information, forecasts, etc. To see the map, you need to go to a subpage (any subpage).
  2. Both nation-wide and regional media should be encouraged to promote this website as the main source of up to date information. 
  3. Updates about the situation in Poland available in English are still not only very scarce but suffer from significant delays, both on official government websites and across the media outlets, bar a few notable exceptions.

The website in question should not only post up-to-date NEWS, but also cover priority information about activities and initiatives being undertaken, campaigns in progress, positive stories of people who find creative ways of dealing with the risks of psychological trauma of feeling chronically anxious or isolated, like this one, and many other categories of vital information. 

Today, to find out (in English) what's happening in Poland on the COVID front, without communications background in your CV, you have a limited number of options, other than the Polish Press Agency webpage, a few local titles, like Poland Today, and international newspapers, such as Financial Times. Googling the basic combinations of words and phrases in English around this topic could definitely yield much better, more informative results. Lack of "one window approach" in aggregating digitally-available information around this topic is an easy culprit.

From "put up with" to "survive", in no time

While it can be hard to resist a smile when seeing Gloria Gaynor washing her hands and singing "I will survive" in an effort to promote awareness, the fact of the matter is that coronavirus has already turned many countries and cities into ghosts of their former selves, even those that only a few months ago were more than busy complaining about the pains of overtourism.

Only yesterday, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General made an announcment that marked yet another grim milestone in the coronavirus story to date: 132,000 cases of COVID-19 have now been reported to WHO from 123 countries and territories. 5,000 have lost their lives – a tragic milestone. Europe has now become the epicenter of the pandemic, with more reported cases and deaths than the rest of the world combined, apart from China. More cases are now reported every day than were reported in China at the highest of its epidemic.

These figures should speak to everyone's imagination, without much need for further explanation. If you combine them with the unique characteristics of the SARS-CoV-2 virus (incl. the relatively high percentage of people who require hospitalisation when infected; the fact that many remain asymptomatic and inadvertantly help spread the virus; last but not least, the fact that, unlike flu, it's a new virus = no one is immune).

2020: In search of (any) tourists?

All kinds of economic criteria may now look almost irrelevant in the face of the need to stop the threat on country-to-country level but the impact on those countries (and cities!) where a variety of mass communication measures and campaigns have already been adopted and set in motion on a mass scale is quite conspicuous. Kraków, for example, in many ways feels quite "asymptomatic", but to a more accustomed eye, some things feel very different, apart from the obvious outcomes of mandatory restrictions already in place for cinemas, pubs, bars, cafes and restaurants.

Across the city centre, you will easily see tourists walking around town and parents strolling along the river banks with their children, enjoying the weekend sun. Overall, however, the numbers look significantly lower, especially given the great weather conditions these days and the usual sense of impatience at this time of the year, i.e.seasonal longing for warm, sunny, spring weather.

Going to shops, groceries and bakeries, you will inevitably experience the pervasive sense of alertness: everyone looking at everyone with significantly more attention to detail than usual. Let's just say that coughing and sneezing in the public might just be a thousand times more noticeable today than it used to be in 2019. Other than that, life goes on and you will definitely be well advised to adopt a glass-half-full mindset with a healthy dose of distance, while complying with well-grounded recommendations. And yes, smiling more in public (than you otherwise would) almost feels like powerful charity work.

Luckily, people are still far from the paranoia levels of anxiety and you will likely experience a lot of calm all around, combined with a peculiar sense of focused silence, even during the mundane activities like daily shopping. 

No more conferences, organised events and gatherings till...

The day I heard the news about the drastic measures being introduced in Poland, including those pertaining to the event world, I was attending a meeting of MICE industry representatives in Kraków. At the same time (quite literally), the government held a press conference where one of the first "big" decisions was announced, a temporary ban on mass events, as defined by the Polish law.

A day later (March 11th), one of the first (and last) conferences of early 2020 took place (Historical Cities 3.0). As irony would have it, the title of this year's edition was: "In search of a premium tourist". That, at a time when seeing comparatively modest numbers of tourists visit your city, even if it's a UNESCO world heritage site like Kraków, loved by millions of tourists worldwide, increasingly sounds like wishful thinking, whether we talk about Europe, Asia, America or Africa.

Event organisers and their quandaries

With the above-mentioned conference, like in thousands of other cases and industries all over the world, the organisers must have experienced the looming uncertainty till the very last minute, wondering (a) whether they should continue with the event in the first place (aka not cancel), especially in the light of the growing pressure from the ever bigger bulk of other events being cancelled and postponed every day, and (b) what measures to undertake to mitigate infection risks during the event.

MICE industry: calendar-wiped-out syndrome

Over the last few weeks, I've talked to a number of event organisers, conference-centre heads, agencies, long-standing business partners and journalists. Most of them are severely impacted by an overnight revolution in their calendars. "Evaporation" might be a better word, now that I think about it. Almost every event they had scheduled for the first half of 2020 has either disappeared from their calendar or has been postponed to September or later.

The list includes not only agencies, event organisers (concerts, conferences, fairs, etc.) but a wide variety of freelance professions linked to the event industry at large, such as light/sound engineers, catering companies, translators/interpreters, graphic designers, videographers, technicians...not to mention logistics, hotels, transport services, etc. The smaller your business and the more narrow your area of expertise, chances are you may have been hit the hardest. One week ago, I took a closer look at this phenomenon in a separate post, on a broader, international scale.

Glass half-full: what to do with all that free time?

What came as a surprise to many was the decision of the Tatra National Park to close its borders for tourists and visitors until further notice. When you think about it, it was to be expected that with all that "free time" and kids out of schools, one of the first impulses for many Poles would be to head for the mountains and enjoy some time off the big-city life, not to mention the psychological bliss of being able to stay away from the entire COVID-19 frenzy, if only for a while. Well, not in the Tatra Mountains. Not for now, anyway.  

COVID as "storytelling"

Whether you like it or not, over the last few weeks, you have been bombarded with an unbelieveable number of messages revolving around COVID-19, not to mention the overwhelming number of sources and directions they've been coming from, all the way from your daily dose of media intake, through conversations with friends, colleagues at work, to (probably) over 90% of your Facebook/Twitter (and other social-media) coverage. 

Under such circumstances, sustaining a healthy sense of balance in life is not an easy task and, therefore, should become a conscious effort. Neither is it helpful to have just about everyone in your life speculating, sharing fears, "forecasts", predictions and gloomy expectations in an otherwise perfectly innocuous attempt to come to their own conclusions and set their feet on anything firm and reliable, in the short-term perspective at least.

When the pen is mightier than the sword

It is probably the first time in the 21st century when the quality of communication coming from global political leaders, top news outlets, experts and authorities in respective fields, translates to so many life-and-death situations, all the way from the risk of panic (at individual, local and nation-wide level) to the negative impact of prolonged anxiety on people's health. At a time like this, contributing to even the slightest forms of panic immediately creates dangerous ripple effects for entire economies, institutional relations, healthcare systems, etc.

Think about it this way: if for a prolonged period of time, the country you live in feeds you almost exclusively with an unbelieveable volume of pessimistic media coverage, restoring any sense of balance on a personal level must be a conscious effort. With the words 'quarantine', 'restrictions', 'risks' and 'threats' repeated over and over again, day after day, week after week, everywhere around you, you should definitely pay a little more attention than usual to ensuring that there are also some positive stimuli in your life, the things you like and love doing, the things that make you smile, the people you have fond memories of and you haven't talked to in a long while, the books you have postponed reading, the pastime activities you've never had time for because of too much work or whatever reason is good for you. 

We are the world

Assuming humanity is smart and mature enough to stop the coronavirus in its tracks before the summer 2020, unlikely as it looks now, there is at least one more question worth asking at this stage, when there are so many unknowns: Will the coronavirus story change anything in our lives in the long term? Will it make us any more mindful of the things we (actually) value in life as opposed to those we think we value?

Once the rough seas of the global COVID-19 storm calm down a little, will we happily return to our hectic former selves, or, will something change meaningfully, other than just washing our hands more often, looking at door knobs differently and keeping more distance in conversation? Will we become (at least a little) more attentive to the world's big challenges, in areas where cynicism, hypocrisy and ignorance have long had the upper hand with science, like climate change, energy unsustainability, or matters as ancient as poverty and inequality?

And finally, given the Chinese, Italian, Spanish, British and American experience in battling the coronavirus on their home turf, in their own ways, what are the lessons learned for mankind's enhanced future immunity to systemic irresponsibility, blatant ignorance and misinformation on the one hand, and strengthening our solidarity, our best selves, at a time of global crisis. One can not only hope but work towards the world where the practical knowledge gained during a crisis like this truly benefits specific fields and disciplines, such as healthcare, crisis (communication) management and public relations, to mention only a few.

COVID19, the story that started at a food market in Wuhan and late 2019 and was to bring the entire world to its knees in less than a quarter, is one of suffering, loss and mankind's fragility. We owe it to those who have already paid the highest price, not to waste and forget the lessons it will leave us with, once we have finally brought it under control.


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