New Zealand’s lauded response to Covid-19 has been laid on a Kiwi unit against the virus – but also the daily messages of Dr Ashley Bloomfield and Jacinda Ardern. Photo / Ross Giblin
New Zealand’s “team of five million” has been credited relentlessly for eradicating Covid-19 – but how can our leaders unite us when scientific evidence is ignored elsewhere?
Victoria University researchers have studied transcripts from a 1pm media conference, a regular Kiwi show this year, in search of communication lessons for future crises.
“We are widely and deserving of praise for having an evidence-based response to the pandemic, but our response is not just facts and figures,” said Dr Courtney Addison.
“It reflects profound ideas about right and wrong, about the value of life, and about what we owe as citizens.
“We are now asking how questions of right, wrong, good, bad, obligation and solidarity manifest in our leaders’ explanation of the pandemic – and their response to it.”
Addison and master student Dinithi Bowatte were already studying Kiwi scientific knowledge of Covid-19 when, in mid-2020, he and his colleague, Associate Professor Rebecca Priestley turned to the way science was explained to the public.
Since then, he’s worked closely with fellow anthropologist Dr Jane Horan to interview Kiwis, while Priestley – a prominent science communicator in his own right – has worked with media studies expert Dr Alex Beattie to analyze briefing transcripts.
The work all led to a project Addison and Bowatte led, focusing on the role ethics plays in direction.
More specifically, they want to understand how “anthropological ethics” is applied.
It is the assumption that local factors – be they social, cultural, political or economic – determine how we decide what is good or beneficial.
“This perspective also treats ethics as something we do through our relationships – when we try to do what’s right by each other and by ourselves,” Addison explained.
“So, applying this theory to our Covid-19 response, we are asking what moral reasons are important here in Aotearoa.”
In the new study, funded only by a Health Research Council grant, Bowate will examine transcripts to highlight what is known as “moral talk.”
“Those are references to good, bad, right, wrong, risk, concern, solidarity, responsibility, best interest, and so on,” explained Addison.
Researchers sought to identify themes that stood out, such as whether some explanations were given more weight than others – and if these changed over time.
Bowatte says some interesting changes have been documented by the researchers.
“What is surprising this year is research showing that Kiwi confidence in science, scientists and even politicians has increased as a consequence of our successful national response to Covid-19,” he said.
“That’s very interesting because it can easily fall that trust, as we have seen elsewhere around the world.”
He said a 1pm briefing from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and health director general Dr Ashley Bloomfield ultimately proved a big part of how Kiwis access and understand scientific knowledge.
“I’m very interested in knowing about the way they talk, or the things they say, that convince the public to believe they know what they’re doing,” he said.
“I think understanding these things can help the broader field of science communication, because we have serious scientific issues like climate change that need to be discussed – but it’s important that we talk about them in a way that empowers the broader public.
“The communication that comes out of our national response is strong enough to make the Kiwi effectively ‘unite against Covid-19’.
“It would be great if we could learn from this experience to prepare for the inevitable challenges we will have to face in the future.”
Associate Prime Minister Juliet Gerrard’s chief science adviser agreed Kiwi’s trust in the experts made a “big difference” in tackling the threat.
Risk communication is one of the most frequently asked topics by his international colleagues.
“You can get the best scientific advice in the world – but as tragically illustrated in some countries, it makes no difference if nobody believes it.”
The Health Ministry’s own chief science adviser, Dr Ian Town, also praised Bloomfield and Ardern’s cautious and unifying message from the Beehive’s podium – but also the efforts of all Kiwis this year.
“A team of five million people won that day.”