CERC During a Pandemic

Adapted from the CDC Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication Course on Pandemic Flu

While the basic tenets of Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication fully apply to pandemic influenza, communication professionals are challenged to identify the CERC activities that should be intensified.

Challenges in a severe pandemic will wreak havoc on us from a biological, psychological and sociological level. Communicators need to be prepared to respond to the many facets of a pandemic.

The global spread of the influenza virus is considered inevitable. Death rates would be determined by four factors:

  • The number of people who become infected
  • The underlying characteristics of the affected population
  • The vulnerability of the affected population
  • The effectiveness of preventive measures

Preparedness activities should assume that most of the world’s population will be affected.

Communication activities should take into account the vulnerable population—the elderly, the chronically ill, the immune compromised, children, and pregnant women—as they are most at risk for serious disease and death during a pandemic.

An influenza pandemic would more than likely occur in two or three waves of 6 to 8 weeks during an 18-month period. The fact that the virus would affect the community multiple times should be made clear before a pandemic begins. As the pandemic begins, information on the importance of community measures before, during and after each wave may mitigate the impact of the first and subsequent waves.

The public must feel empowered to take action in the event of a crisis to reduce fear, stress and victimization. Communication messages should acknowledge the emotions people are feeling, at the same time stressing the importance of helping each other. When people feel as though there is something that they can do, they feel less helpless and hopeless.

During a severe pandemic, public health may include measures to reduce the spread of disease such as closing schools and businesses, limiting public gatherings, and advising people to stay home with a sick family member.

Checklist: Communication for Personal Resilience

Some people may:

  • Engage in denial and refuse to alter their behavior
  • Expect the burden of mitigation to be handled by others and not alter their behavior
  • Be concerned about the risk but believe they can’t alter their behavior

Before a pandemic, communication messages must help people understand transmission and the reasonableness of recommended actions along with stressing personal responsibility.

Because there will be no vaccine available at the beginning of a pandemic, the need for careful communication is critical, as any misstep could create an atmosphere of chaos and mistrust.

Communicators should acknowledge fear, anxiety and helplessness through openness, empathy and consistency.