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“Does everybody understand the message of the RIVM?”

“Does everybody understand the message of the RIVM?”

UM-experts about health information regarding corona

The amount of coronavirus infections is increasing in the Netherlands, but according to the government we are still in the ‘containment stage’. Rigorous decisions have therefore not yet been taken. What do Maastricht scientists think of the actions of the National Institute for Health and the Environment (RIVM)? According to the book? Or far too weak, as twitterers suggest.

Stef Kremers, professor of Health Promotion, is full of praise for the Dutch approach so far. He is impressed by the accuracy of the authorities concerned, but also by their crystal-clear communication. “On social media, comments are all over the place, but the ministry, RIVM and the Area Health Authorities (GGD) clearly speak in unison. Just like the field of Health Promotion prescribes. Often enough, one institute will say that you need to wash your hands, while another says that this this doesn’t help very much.”
Also Ilse Mesters, Associate Professor of Epidemiology, thinks the RIVM is working “according the book”. She was in the middle of her module of Health Protection when the coronavirus broke out in China. And call it coincidence or not, the topic of the block was Outbreak. “The RIVM explains everything in detail and in small steps; wash your hands regularly, do not visit the GP if you show symptoms and have come from a risk area, but call the doctor. They are clearly taking the lead, with a single person [its boss Jaap van Dissel, ed.] who shows up everywhere on television, and that is good, because that is what the public wants: a familiar face. We are also fortunate that he is very calm.”

In the meantime, The Netherlands had the fortune that the virus struck in Italy first, says Kremers. “That gave us time and we were able to learn from the experiences in Lombardy. The measures that were taken there, now benefit our province of Noord-Brabant, where everybody should stay at home as much as possible. Whether local people will actually do so, is another matter. In this case, it is the interest of the group versus personal interest. Working from home is done primarily to protect those whose health is weak. This will pay back if employers take it seriously.”
Mesters wonders how the message of the RIVM is sinking in. “Where do people get their information?” From news reports and other news programmes? From reliable media or social media? “What’s more, we have no influence on the human factor”, she says. “There are all kinds of groups living in the Netherlands, higher and lower educated: what about their background knowledge? Does everybody know what is meant by ‘risks’, how do people interpret the fact that if you’re a coronavirus carrier, you can infect one to three others? Do they think that this is little or much?”

And then there is of course the influence of social media, partly responsible for the spreading of a lot of fake news, scare-mongering and horror stories, but also Tweets that express fear and insecurity. Tweeters share links to on a massive scale, such as to an article in The Telegraph, in which scientists say that the coronavirus has mutated into a far more aggressive strain. One tweeter calls for action: “Lock down the entire country for three weeks, it’s the only way to contain the virus properly.”
Mesters does not follow these posts; she thinks that most Dutch people respond “very calmly. We can rely on the RIVM keeping a close eye on things. The protocols – contact tracing for each identified case, when to take what measures, et cetera – have been ready for years.” Mesters thinks that the Netherlands count itself lucky to have such a “good surveillance system”. She believes that there are very few countries that monitor so much: from ‘regular’ flu waves to tick bites, from salmonella poisoning to the outbreak of bird flu.

Talking about protocols – as lectures and education meetings are cancelled – ; at the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life sciences they’re all ready, says Kremers. It focuses around education without personal contact. This includes thesis supervision using Skype, videoconferencing, but also web lectures. “If the outbreak of the coronavirus reaches the next stage, we will resort to such alternatives. This way, we also try to prevent students from experiencing delays.”

Pointing at the rising statistics: “The peak is still to come, but when this will be, is impossible to say. It also depends on the outdoor temperature", Kremers states. "If it gets warmer quickly, the virus become less effective. Just like in the case of the flu.”

Wendy Degens, Maurice Timmermans

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