Ineffective Risk Communication is a Public Health Issue: A Micro-Essay

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When it comes to health and wellness, in order to act in the best interest of ourselves, and other members of our communities, we must be made aware of all facts and risks related to things that can harm us by reliable, unbiased experts. This is where the importance of risk communication, or different types of programming and messaging disseminated by experts and professionals that inform people about the risks associated with harmful phenomena, comes in.

Our ability to make informed decisions about our health depends on whether or not we have access to the necessary educational resources to learn about what we, as unique individuals, need to thrive. But what happens when the educational resources we need are unreliable or inaccessible? Further, what happens when chronic disenfranchisement, at the individual and community level, prevents people from making informed decisions and acting on them?

A public health crisis.

Or, rather, intersecting public health crises that highlight the interconnected nature of all facets of human life and ecological systems. Crises that reveal the complex relationship between human experiences and environmental processes.

From the consequences of preventable dam failure to the complexities of pandemic management, or the rising rates of domestic violence cases to the ongoing pollution of groundwater, public health concerns involve diverse sectors of society and high amounts of risk. Risks that, most often, impact the lives of people in Black, Brown, Indigenous, and poor white communities.

It is apparent that we are living in a society where a culture of unprepared response reigns supreme over awareness and prevention with respect to crisis. Decades of economy-centric, instead of healing-based and people-centric, policies and legislation have resulted in a state of perpetual chaos and collective scrambling as sea levels rise, built environments crumble, and rates of preventable deaths rise. To add insult to injury, ineffective risk communication prevents people from making informed decisions and approaching health crises from a place of care and ethical consideration.

The logics of capitalism and liberalism — ideas that glorify individualism, consumption, and competition above all else— trickle down into our psyches and impact how we talk and think about other people and our relationships with them. Things like planned obsolescence and cost-benefit-analysis no longer apply only to material goods that people buy. Then we’re forced to navigate different institutions that treat us either like objects or means to ends. So when crisis strikes, like in the form of a global pandemic for instance, people have to adapt to a state of perpetual uncertainty. And without reliable guidance the consequences can be deadly.

It’s difficult enough to navigate life in a global police state that’s fueled by systemic violence and aided in its genocidal plans by environmental racism. It’s even more difficult to do so while struggling to find reliable, trustworthy sources of vital information that are quite often related to life-or-death choices for billions of people. Choices that require us to think about risk and harm with respect to ourselves and other people.

The consequences of ineffective risk communication are all around us. While we tirelessly work at the individual level to make good decisions that prioritize collective well-being, it’s necessary for experts and professionals in fields even minimally related to public health and wellness to strive for effective risk communication strategies that are inclusive and reach people according to their unique needs and abilities.

The costs of business as usual will constitute to be overwhelmingly deadly.

NYC-based philosophy graduate student whose work covers Genocide Studies, Repro + Enviro Justice, and Critical Race Theory. @moontwerk

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