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[Contribution] Health communication and COVID-19 pandemic

Lee Hye-ryeon
Lee Hye-ryeon
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has changed all of our lives forever. Just a year ago, none of us would have thought that the world would have to face this unbelievable reality. Nonetheless, here we are, and we will learn to overcome this pandemic and move forward.

While there have been concerted efforts to develop effective vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, there are other coordinated efforts required to successfully overcome the pandemic. For instance, we all have heard the term “infodemic,” something that is just as serious as the pandemic itself. Infodemic refers to waves of misinformation and rumors about the pandemic that interfere with quelling the pandemic. The director general of the World Health Organization pointed out that “fake news spread faster and more easily than the virus, and is just as dangerous.” Without containing the infodemic, our efforts to deal with the pandemic cannot be effective.

Another requirement is the effective and speedy communication of science related to the virus. Rapidly evolving scientific data and information needs to reach the right people, at the right time, and in a way that is easy and clear. International and national authorities, as well as the media at large must work hard to accomplish this.

Another vital aspect of combating the pandemic is public communication campaigns to inform and influence public attitudes and behaviors. These prevent further spread of the virus and help people cope with their lives under the pandemic.

The academic discipline of health communication can offer important insight into how we deal with these communication-related aspects of pandemic management. Health communication can be loosely defined as the study and use of communication strategies to inform and influence individual and community decisions that enhance health. Health communication was solidified around 50 years ago as a subfield within communication, but grew rapidly to become a major area of research and education across the world. The Korea Health Communication Association was established in 2009, and its members are working actively to inform and influence public health policy and programs in Korea.

There are a couple of key lessons we have learned from 50 years of health communication scholarship.

The first lesson is that there is no approach that will impact everyone uniformly. Effective communication messages to influence people’s health behavior need to understand the unique social, psychological, behavioral and communication characteristics of different target audience groups. Message content and format must be tailored to address these characteristics, and also must be delivered using channels that are likely to reach them. In the context of the pandemic, we must do a better job of developing different messages regarding the pandemic that are likely to resonate with members of public who may have differing knowledge bases or motivational characteristics.

The second lesson is that in order to successfully influence complicated health behaviors, a comprehensive multilevel program is necessary. While some may think the decision to adopt health behaviors is entirely dependent on the individual, there are many systemic factors that exert tremendous influence over individuals. Without efforts to change these systemic factors, programs that are exclusively directed at individuals will not produce a successful outcome. Thus, instead of expecting that individuals find ways to adapt and cope with the pandemic on their own, we ought to be putting in place policies and resources to support individual-level actions and removing barriers for individuals to seek and access these resources.

Even after we overcome the current COVID-19 pandemic, there is no guarantee that there won’t be another disaster that we will have to grapple with. Making full use of the knowledge and insight offered by the field of health communication will allow us to improve our communication responses, and to be better prepared for these health crises.

By Lee Hye-ryeon

Hye-ryeon Lee, Ph.D.
Professor of Communicology, University of Hawaii at Manoa
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