Crushing COVID-19 Down Under, One Message at a Time

The famous laid-back Aussie attitude is out and effective coronavirus communications are in, writes Lukasz Swiatek.

Australia is known for its glorious natural wonders, the cultural diversity of its citizens and the relaxed lifestyles they enjoy. Over the past couple of weeks, though, these lifestyles have been upended. The population has been abiding by strict new physical distancing rules, while many companies have been re-organised. Strong communication has been one of the key factors in making these day-to-day changes. It has also helped save countless lives.

Indeed, Australia has done comparatively well so far in safeguarding people during this horrific pandemic. At the time of writing (late April), the country’s public broadcaster reports a total of just over 6,700 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 83 per cent of which are now classified as “recovered”; tragically, there have also been 83 deaths. The nation’s success in significantly slowing the spread of the virus has puzzled many in Aoteaora New Zealand; our Kiwi neighbours, who had been in virtual lock-down for a month, apparently consider us to be an “enigma”.

Here, though, there is little mystery to the strong results so far. Australians have largely abided by the new physical distancing regulations. They have cancelled gatherings large and small. Other health measures, including regular hand-washing, have also been taken incredibly seriously. More than two million Australians voluntarily downloaded the federal government’s COVIDSafe mobile app in a little over 24 hours after its release. Different forms of public communication – such as the shopping centre ads, below, also rolled out by the federal government – have been vital in helping the population understand its obligations. The nation’s multicultural broadcaster, the SBS, has been providing dedicated written and audio-visual information for the country’s many ethnically diverse communities.

Scientific experts have also pointed out that the country has benefited substantially from strong contact tracing and widespread testing, both of which have steadily increased over time. The closure of the nation’s borders also helped enormously. Geography has been a crucial factor, too, with the population already being quite dispersed.

Australian organisations large and small have moved quickly to halt the march of the disease. Workers have received new training; health and safety measures have been raised; and unexpected partnerships have been formed. In one instance, a now-prominent clinic manager from the township of Nelson Bay mobilised a nationwide supply chain of sanitiser. In another instance, the army enabled a small medical mask factory in Victoria to lift its production levels significantly by helping it run like clockwork. Local councils have also let their ratepayers know about new regulations, through signage such as the poster, below, in a local park.

In my case, one organisation has been communicating more frequently than any other: my employer, the University of New South Wales (UNSW Sydney). At the height of the pandemic, when the situation was most dynamic and COVID-19 was spreading most rapidly, the university was sending emails to its community every day. The emails were targeted, of course; some were directed at students, others at staff like me, and others still at “members of the UNSW community”. Since that peak period, emails are still landing in our inboxes, but not as often. The university launched its new branding – shown in the email below – just a few months ago; the new brand components are probably well known to the UNSW community by now as a result of the pandemic-related updates.

The university also speedily created websites for particular stakeholder groups, including teaching staff and researchers. The central COVID-19 site provides a wealth of information – particularly for students – about key topics, though its landing page has been pared back to the essentials and organised around large, clear icons for ease of reading. Educators have been provided with an internal ‘Teaching Remotely’ site, as all classes have been moved online. A dedicated “Chinese FAQ” web-page has also been created; it builds on the updates that the university has been posting to the Chinese social media app WeChat. Broader community engagement is also being undertaken through a new public donor campaign, which is strategically framed around the university’s “clear vision” for tackling the impacts of the disease and invites publics to “Join UNSW to change the course of COVID-19”.

The donor campaign will surely become increasingly important in the months ahead. Australian higher education – the nation’s third-largest sector – is facing an enormous, widely-publicised revenue shortfall, largely as a result of a drop in the number of international students. Of course, the financial turmoil is impacting other industries, as well; the multitude of shockwaves created by the pandemic will continue to reverberate around the world for a long time.

Despite its successes to date, Australia’s response to COVID-19 certainly hasn’t been flawless. (One of the biggest debacles involved the Ruby Princess cruise ship, whose 2,700 passengers were allowed to disembark in Sydney on March 19, despite the fact that some on board had already tested positive to the virus.) Nevertheless, the country continues to work with an efficiency and effectiveness that might surprise many outsiders. As move into winter, the months ahead are sure to bring with them many more trials. However, effective measures – including strong communication – will help us pull through this unique challenge.