Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix have been among those doing a good job of updating the media, and in turn the public, about the COVID-19 pandemic. But is it too much, too late? (B.C. Government/Special to Black Press Media)

GUEST VIEW: Media importance never more apparent than with COVID-19

In swan-song column, reporter Phil Melnychuk suggests more concerted PR early on might have helped

by Phil Melnychuk/Special to The News

Let’s hope a year from now, COVID-19 will be just one more headline in a blur of past disasters and gloom that includes crashed airliners, pipeline protests, terror attacks, and plunging economies.

Let’s hope a year from now, we’ll confuse COVID-19 with the latest anti-viral software for Windows, or maybe mix it up with the title of the Stephen King novel on the topic.

This insidious bug is challenging us like we’ve never been before, because we’ve never been through it. Despite seeing a preview of the disaster unfold in China, we’re all on a learning curve.

No one has any set script at this point. Rest assured, we will have one, when we get through this.

The next bug that hits us will not have a chance.

But back to the war we’re currently in.

Our health-care and long-term care workers, nurses, doctors, grocery store employees, delivery people, cops, are the heroes in this one, risking their health day after day to serve the rest of us, as we make the supreme sacrifice of staying home, watching Netflix and old hockey games.

I don’t know how they do it, heroes to the extreme. Whenever pro sports cancels events, there is a crisis.

Our weak link currently is the early lack of public education and awareness on the outbreak.

While our politicians and health officials have stepped up stupendously, with daily updates of the gravity of the situation with no sugar coating, there’s somethings missing in the mass consciousness – which could have been remedied by, I hate to say it, a public relations plan.

Only today did the federal government launch an advertising campaign on the pandemic.

On Sunday, I saw the first Facebook ad from the B.C. government telling people, “Now is the time to stay home.”

I love those types of ads because they’re clear and easy for idiots like me to understand. Don’t get closer than two metres, stay home, self isolate.

But it’s a month too late.

Instead, senior governments should have blitzed the airwaves, social media, and print about the approaching pandemic with early warnings, followed by regular announcements of progressive measures to follow.

Pandemic warnings should resemble those issued for severe weather or earthquakes.

These simple messages resonate with the public.

People need to be told several times, in many ways, in order to build public awareness.

Tips on symptoms, what to do if sick, what not to do, how to interact, and coming measures, all should have been included in a concise, consistent format, delivered at the provincial level.

Then progressive enforcement, directed by the provincial government, has to begin. It should not be up to city hall staff to determine when to close parks, pools, and parking lots. That all has to come from health experts with consistent application across B.C.

Currently, we have a mishmash of responses, with Vancouver just approving fines of $50,000 for businesses that don’t follow provincial health orders, Pitt Meadows declaring a local state of emergency while Maple Ridge has not.

And who’s in charge of enforcing a provincial health order anyways?

It’s easy to second guess, but that seems to be where we’re at as the number of cases still climb.

Did we act fast enough?

The next few weeks will tell.

In the meantime, consider this break something like the shutdowns at Christmas, when all the shops you want to visit are closed, when you finally have the time to shop.

Lastly, the key to us getting through all this is a healthy media, to cover it all and inform the public and to allow the various levels of government to talk to each other.

Without the media on the ground reporting what’s happening with this or any event, the public, and government, is in dark ignorance.

Yet news outlets have been struggling for years as advertising dollars are sucked south into the coffers of Google, Facebook, and Amazon.

And now with the effects of the pandemic and shop shut downs and closures, advertising dollars continue to deplete, at a time when reporting is needed more than ever.

Once COVID-19 is vanquished, and vanquished it will be, our senior governments need to revise tax and business policies to ensure a healthy, independent press that serves the public and protects our precious, fragile democracy.

Definitely chose the wrong time to leave one of the best jobs a person could have.

So here’s a -30- a symbol we used to write, a long time ago, to denote the end of a story.

It’s been a blast.


– Until last week, Phil Melnychuk was a reporter with The News. He joined the team in 2002.


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