The Paradox of Precaution: Examining Public Health COVID‑19 Outbreak Management Strategies

Driedger, S. Michelle | $499,731

Manitoba University of Manitoba 2020 CIHR Operating Grant

In any outbreak, public health focuses on surveillance, containment, and providing recommendations for how the public can stay safe: wash hands, cover coughs, stay home when sick, and get vaccinated if one is available. While this is similar messaging to what is heard in cold/flu season, what separates these events apart is the inherent uncertainty involved during the emergence of a novel virus. However, when public health best practice (e.g. quarantining returning nationals from Wuhan) is attacked as putting people in “medical jails”, or when the WHO implores governments for emergency resources to manage the outbreak by declaring the novel virus as “public enemy number one” akin to a “global threat potentially worse than terrorism”, it creates a paradox around the concept of precaution. There is an urgent need to examine the cultural, social and political responses to the management of the current outbreak in real time. The objectives of this research are: 1) to evaluate how cautionary public health messages for the outbreak are presented by the news media; 2) to evaluate whether public health agencies are using social media and how well these tools, if used, increase public understanding of these outbreaks; 3) to assess how members of the general public, including special targeted groups, understand the outbreak, both the risks of disease and the risks of contraction; 4) to evaluate how effectively members of the public feel they can protect themselves given public health outbreak communication, and how they make sense of this relative to seasonal influenza risk messaging; and 5) to assess public response to a novel vaccine if one becomes available. We will meet these objectives through a content analysis of news media stories / social media, and interviews with public health communication leads (objs 1&2) and focus groups/surveys with members of the general public and targeted communities (e.g. Indigenous peoples, Asians) in select Canadian cities (objs 3-5).

With funding from the Government of Canada

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