In the midst of a pandemic, clear communication and messaging is a vital factor in helping combat the novel coronavirus. Introducing and defining new terms such as social distancing, outlining what you can and cannot do, as well as the breakdown of the numerous stimulus packages introduced to support those most effected by the economic ripples of COVID-19, are all critical in being understood – so why has it taken Australia so long to get its messaging right?

Perhaps it is the ongoing behavior to devalue communications and the arts on a federal level that has contributed to the mixed messaging and backflipped rules that are now part of our newly accustomed day-to-day life. As of February, Australia no longer has a Department of Communications and the Arts – it is now consolidated into the newly titled Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications. The Arts now reduced even further to a simple ‘s’ suffix on the last industry mentioned in the new department.

 If communication is worth consolidating into a department heavily founded on tangible and hands-on industries, then it cannot be a surprise that it has taken the Australian public weeks to understand what they can and cannot do to help stop the spread of the virus.

 On 24 March, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the National Cabinet’s decision for stage two shutdowns of services. For beauty and personal care businesses, hairdressers and barbers were allowed to keep operating under a time limit of 30 minutes as well as ensuring “the one person per four square metre rule applies in the premises”. Meanwhile, beauty therapy, spas, tanning, waxing and tattoo parlors, were asked to close.

The Australian Hairdressing Council CEO Sandy Chong said 40,000 hairdressers and barbers were at risk as they are directly exposed to large members of the public. “Why beauty was shut down but hairdressing wasn’t, I don’t understand,” said Chong. “The government must close hairdressing and barbering down for the safety of our workers and the community.”

On 26 March, the 30-minute appointment rule was reversed, yet hairdressers and barbers remain open – at least those that can afford to stay open.

But it’s not only the beauty industry that has been subject to mixed messaging. In a press conference, Morrison said, “Cafes…for takeaway, that will continue. So, no change to the issues around cafes. Food courts and shopping centers will not be allowed to continue. But getting takeaway from those food outlets in those shopping centers, that can continue because takeaway is able to be done.”

And yet, we are told we need to be self-isolating, leaving our homes only for the essentials as a means to do our part in stopping the spread of COVID-19. The National Cabinet has listed four reasons as to why we can leave our homes: “shopping for what you need, receiving medical care, exercising, or traveling to work or education”.

If I have a grocery bag in hand, or wearing activewear because I’ve stepped outside to exercise, am I allowed to grab a takeaway coffee from my local café to support the business? When am I breaching the measures? For a 21-year-old in Newcastle, about two hours outside of Sydney, sitting on a public bench and eating a takeaway kebab cost him a $1000 fine.

“Stay home” is the core message around the country, but when we are outside, there is an infinite grey area. Morrison said, “Everyone who has a job in the economy is an essential worker…people earning money in their family when another member of their family may have lost their job and can no longer earn, that’s an essential job. Jobs are essential.”

It has taken time for Australians to adjust to the social distancing measures and how we can support services still open – such as kebab shop owners – during this time of uncertainty, but it can only be achieved if what we are being informed is shared clearly. The public wants to do the right thing, but we need to know how.

Communication is essential. Consistent messaging is essential. It can only be achieved if what is being said and what is being done – by both the government and the public – goes hand in hand, to collectively stop the spread of the virus.