COVID COMMS #32: Icarus is falling but how do we warn people?

XIR3675 Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 (oil on canvas) by Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (c.1525-69); 73.5×112 cm; Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Belgium; (add.info.: Icarus seen with his legs thrashing in the sea;); Giraudon; Flemish, out of copyright

There is an oil painting I heard about shortly after 9/11 that is so perfect looking back I think I may have imagined it.

It was a landscape by 16th century Flemish artist Peter Breugel be Oude. A farmworker absorbed is stooped over his plough, a shepherd daydreams, a fisherman is wrapped in his work and sailors busy themselves with tasks.

In the mid-distance if you squint and unnoticed you’ll see a tumbling body fall into the sea.

That’s Icarus falling to earth after flying too close to the sun.

I heard of this painting not long after 9/11 to make the point that as big events happen we miss them because our lives are taken-up by detail.

Right now, we are at one of those moments. On January 8 2021, it was announced that London hospitals are within weeks of breaking point at the out-of-control wave of COVID-19 patients. Please act, the report said. Wash your hands. Stay at home.

Our NHS is about to shatter.

We are the ploughman in this scene and our grand children will ask what the heck we were doing.

We’ll tell them that we were tired of lockdowns, we were meeting friends, we were going to the supermarket and we were watching TV. Some of us were laughing at it all, saying it was not true and some journalists were too busy to take down the drip of misinformation that would kill some of us.

It’s not the job of communications people to wake people up it’s ALL our responsibility to wake up and warn our friends and family of the impending disaster.

As I was watching BBC ‘s Newsnight I was struck by the experts interviewed. The first was a man who has dedicated his life to his field and was clearly troubled at what he was seeing. His use of language was deliciously British. There is a thousand deaths a day, he said, and we can’t do that.

The second interviewee, a consultant, said that things are tremendously stretched. It’s language I recognise from the public sector. Things are challenging. It’s a worry, he said. Language always masks the reality. A thousand deaths a day isn’t a challenge, it’s 10 Hillsborough disasters stacked on top of each other stretching out into the future.

But the consultant is a prisoner of the language that he uses. It got me thinking that this language isn’t getting through.

It made me think of the Italian Mayors in the early stages of the pandemic. Footage of them going spare at people went viral.

Where are you going with these incontinent dogs? You need to stay at home. People are dying. Don’t you get it? Do you want us all to get ill? You are irresponsible idiots, colossal idiots.

– Massimillio Presciutti, Mayor of Gualdo Tadino, near Rome, March, 2020.

I hear that students are graduating and they want to have a party. We’ll send armed police and they’ll go along with flamethrowers.

– Regione Campagna, March 2020.

Now, releasing the Mayors to batter the crap out of people is one thing but it did make me think about use of language and of the content that we allow.

There was a debate this week online about access to intensive care units for journalists who are covering the story. There was frustration at the restricted access. There was counter-frustration from NHS comms people that access had been granted, that it was time consuming and anyway family are not allowed in so why should journalists? Besides, footage of dying people without their consent is deeply unethical.

I get both perspectives and I recognise the hours put in by hacks and communications people. They are now tired. Doctors are nurses are tired of shouting into the void only to be told by some that this is a fraud.

It made me think that maybe the only thing that can cut through now is dying patients, the voices of their families and the weary staff who are treating them.

Recent blogging has shown that the national message has blunted but local messages with local voices cut through.

Icarus is falling.

What tools do we have left to tell people?

And what will we tell our grandchildren?

Pic credit: Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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