By Jessica Cohen
For the Gazette
SHOHOLA, Pa. - Edson Whitney, of Shohola, says he abides by six well-tested principles when he devises communication strategies to prevent epidemics in Africa and Asia, which he has done for 33 years in 15 countries.
But of the U.S., he says, “We’re doing everything wrong.”
He is a public health communication specialist with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health Center for Communication Programs. Last year he developed a national emergency risk communication strategy for Sierra Leone involving the Ministry of Health, Environmental Protection Agency, Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and Office of National Security, designed to respond promptly to zoonotic disease outbreaks and other emergencies. Now he advises Ghana and Ethiopia from his home in Shohola.
His six communication principles come from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention best practices manual. He pointed out contradictions between what the CDC recommends and what was actually done in the U.S.
“The first principle is to be first,” Whitney said. “Get information out as soon as you have it,” and secondly, “Give the right information, and say what you know and don’t know.”
He noted a CBS timeline of President Donald Trump’s responses in which Trump repeatedly said that the coronavirus was “under control.”
On Jan. 22, when the first COVID-19 case appeared in the U.S., Trump said, “Just one case coming in from China. We have it under control,”
Then on Jan. 30, when the U.S. had seven known cases, and the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a public health emergency, Trump said, "We think we have it very well under control. We have very little problem in this country at this moment - five - and those people are all recuperating successfully.”
But by then, the virus was already out of control, Whitney said.
Trump predicted that warm weather would weaken and end the virus, contrary to evidence from warmer countries, and contrary to Whitney’s third principle: “Be credible. Tell the truth. Don’t withhold truth to prevent panic because rumors cause panic.”
By the end of February, 60 cases in the U.S. were confirmed. By March 10, with 1,300 confirmed cases, Trump said, “Just stay calm. It will go away,” further eroding his credibility, according to Whitney.
“Being late getting information out, not telling the truth, not being credible or consistent are all the wrong things to do,” Whitney said. “We promote the right principles in other countries, but we don’t follow them here. It’s absurd.”
The fourth principle, Whitney said, is, “Express empathy. Acknowledge what people are feeling. It builds trust.”
The fifth principle is, “Promote action.”
Whitney pointed to the value of social distancing, covering coughs, hand washing and masks, all of which should have started earlier, he said.
The sixth principle, said Whitney, is “Show respect. Treat people as you would want to be treated.”
He said the failure to provide emergency funding for personal protective equipment, testing and ventilators has led to neglect, inefficiency and mounting deaths.
“A consistent national response would work best,” Whitney said. “But some states don’t have stay-at-home orders, and the virus will resurge here because other states will have later upsurges. People will cross state lines and contaminate others. If we don’t do it right, well have to do it again.”
Meanwhile, from Sierra Leone, where Whitney developed a health risk communication network between sectors and levels of government, an email from a colleague updated him on the effectiveness of their strategy.
“I think the biggest challenge in Africa with COVID-19 is with community transmissions due to the nature of our social settings, living in close proximities. This situation is a thorn in the flesh that mitigates against practicing social and physical distancing. This could be one of the reasons sub-Saharan African countries are seeing increasing cases of COVID-19,” wrote James Fofanah, Sierra Leone country director for Johns Hopkins communication programs. “The Sierra Leone government is aware of this challenge, especially taking lessons from ebola, and is doing its best to quickly isolate, test and treat these early cases of COVID-19.”
As in the U.S., Fofanah reported that they are trying to prevent virus transmission within communities as well as from “imported” cases.
“The good news,” said Whitney, “is that the coronavirus seems to not be mutating into a more virulent strain.”