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To communicate about Covid-19, be more like the Netherlands

Covid-19 communication countries
REUTERS/Ciro De Luca
Many countries offered information about Covid-19 that was too complex for the average person to understand.
Alexandra Ossola
By Alexandra Ossola

Special projects editor

The average American reads at an 8th grade level. Because of this, public health organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have guidelines (pdf) to help make their materials easier to read. If critical medical information—say, for a new disease like Covid-19—is written in a way that is too complex, it might be prove to be too challenging for most people to follow.

Unfortunately, many governments and public health systems failed at communicating critical Covid-19 information so that most people could understand it, according to a new analysis published on the JAMA network (pdf).

In the paper, the researchers used five different scales to assess the reading level of the English language Covid-19 information shared on websites of 15 countries in early April, including the United Kingdom, South Korea, and Australia. They analyzed three public health systems as well: the US CDC, the World Health Organization, and the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

Every one of them shared Covid-19 resources that required more than an 8th grade reading level.

Based on variables like the number and length of dependent clauses, the number of syllables per word, the number of words per sentence, and the amount of technical jargon, the median reading level across all metrics was above 9th grade for every country and organization. 

A few countries did create more comprehensible resources: Information from the Netherlands, France, Belgium, and Switzerland required the lowest literacy levels. The Netherlands’ reading material as scored by the Flesch-Kincaid scale was the only information that fell below an 8th grade reading level.

The researchers didn’t compare countries’ reading levels with Covid-19 outcomes like the infection and mortality rate. But they did touch on how these scores can be correlated with how a country manages the coronavirus. “Nonadherence to readability standards may have a greater influence in communities with lower health literacy, potentially exacerbating the disparate effects of the pandemic,” the researchers write. “As such, efforts should focus on the urgent development of plain-language Covid-19 resources that conform to established guidelines for clear communication and are more accessible to all audiences.”

Of course, many of these countries and public health agencies offer materials that aren’t in English, so this study doesn’t encompass the full breadth of what they communicate. But it seems that a successful coronavirus communication strategy meets citizens where they are, like Taiwan’s humor-driven approach. Each country has unique insight into what will motivate its citizens to comply with advice from the medical community; the real challenge is in turning that knowledge into digestible, actionable information.

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