Keith Rankin on Messaging and Masks and Media

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Analysis by Keith Rankin

Jacinda Ardern is Prime Minister for a good reason. She is an excellent communicator. She got the message about mask-wearing almost bang-on in her speech yesterday. She was correctly reported as saying:

Aucklanders should use a mask if they leave the house to access essential services.

She may have given the impression to some that, if driving to the supermarket, you should put on your mask before leaving home. But that’s a small point to quibble about. The reasonably clear message from Ms Ardern is that people in Auckland should wear masks in enclosed places like shops, public transport, and indoor workplaces. Part of that message is that it is not necessary to wear masks if ‘walking around the block’ for exercise, or if driving in one’s own car on one’s own or with other members of your household.

Yet, on the official Covid19 website, the message (today, 9:00am) is, for Alert Level 3: It is highly recommended that you wear a face covering if you are out and about. This incorrect wording was repeated by the Minister of Health on The Project (TV3) yesterday.

The critical message is that we should wear masks when we are in and about. Covid19 is a disease transmitted in enclosed spaces, and in relatively crowded places. So the message needs to be, put your mask on before:

  • you get on a bus or a train
  • you enter a shopping precinct or similar facility such as an airport
  • you enter an enclosed workplace (including your own workplace)
  • you join a ‘crowd’
  • you ‘break your bubble’

The mainstream media has got the messaging all wrong, despite the Prime Minister saying it right. On the news last night and this morning, we saw reporters in very well ventilated and uncrowded outdoor spaces talking through masks (as if they expected to catch Covid19 from the wind); yet employees in the TV studios were not wearing masks. These reporters have completely failed to get the message that the purposes of mask-wearing is to reassure people nearby that you will not give them Covid19.

Correct messaging around masks is very important. A blanket and enforceable requirement to wear masks in all public spaces – as appears to be the requirement in greater Melbourne – misses the point twice. It is very chilling and oppressive – indeed totalitarian – to not be able to ‘walk around the block’ unless wearing a mask (and risk the indignant ‘community police’). And any mask policy will be ineffective on health grounds if it excludes private workplaces.

My plea is for the politicians, officials and the media to get this messaging right. With the exception of ‘household bubbles’, at Covid19 Levels 3 and 4, mask-wearing should be mandated in ‘enclosed’ and ‘crowded’ spaces (including many private spaces); not in all public spaces.

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