When ‘Voice’ Is Power:

COVID Management through the Power of Communication

Chavalin Svetanant


The COVID crisis has indiscriminately disrupted every single country, revealing both strengths and weaknesses of the elements that sustain public well-being. Its massive scale has posed unthinkable challenges to public health and administration, diplomacy, the economy, and education. For any government, the tool that becomes more indispensable than ever is effective public communication. Without it, public cooperation may never happen.  

Roles of ‘Voice’ in Communication

In this article, the author uses Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin's definition of ‘voice’. A voice under this definition is not limited to uttered sounds but extends to include an abstract component representing the speaker's attitude, identity, stance, and self-positioning in each discourse. According to Bakhtin's theory, all utterances, whether in writing or verbal, are responses to other ‘voices’ or, in other words, diverse opinions in society as represented by various forms of response. In some circumstances, a speaker may choose not to acknowledge other opinions, and thus not to respond to other ‘voices’ but to communicate using their own single ‘voice’ (monogloss). By contrast, in other circumstances, a speaker may choose to respond to different ‘voices’ (heteroglass). Responses can be positive (to accept) or negative (to reject), depending on the speaker’s intention and communication techniques. For example, when using ‘voices’ only to convey that “He is a good person”, we may say, “Many people say he is a good person.” Alternatively, we may say, “He may be a good person” to leave room for a different ‘voice’ (which in this case is a ‘voice’ that says, “He is a bad person”). On the other hand, we may choose to leave no room at all for this opinion by refuting it, stating, “He used to be bad, but he is a good person now.”, or “No matter what, I am certain that he is a good person.”

A voice under this definition is not limited to uttered sounds but extends to include an abstract component representing the speaker's attitude, identity, stance, and self-positioning in each discourse.

In a crisis, it is common for people to pay attention to their countries’ leaders, particularly because their “authoritative voices” guide all parties involved. In this article, the author presents a comparative study of authoritative ‘voices’ in public discourse in Australia and Thailand, particularly regarding COVID management. The article will first discuss Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who typically responds to different ‘voices’ negatively by refuting  allegations aggressively and often addresses the public audience as his direct opposing interlocutors:


“I’m never attached to my position. Many people said I wanted to be in my position for a long, long time. You need to ask those who said this.” (27 Oct 2020)


“If everyone gets tested once using the Antigen Test Kit, and it turns out that they are all sick, whoa, [the number of cases] will grow more. It’s not that we hide [the figures]. It’s a medical principle. You need to understand this.” (30 Jul 2021) 

Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison tends to respond to reprimanding ‘voices’ by initially accepting them before adding further comments beneficial to himself. 


I take responsibility for the problems that we have had, but I am also taking responsibilities for the solutions we’re putting in place and the vaccination rates that we are now achieving.” (21 Jul 2021)


On another occasion, Scott Morrison responded to the ‘voices’ of public criticism demanding him to accept responsibility for delayed vaccine deliveries and inadequate vaccine supply in a press conference while the press was attempting to corner him, as follows:


“The idea of COVID zero, that's not the issue once you get to 70 and 80 per cent. Any state and territory that thinks that somehow they can protect themselves from COVID with the Delta strain forever, that's just absurd.” (24 Aug2021)


To close down the different ‘voices’ in the example, Scott Morrison’s technique was to provide justification for the desired vaccination rate while at the same time subtly rejecting the COVID zero strategy. He then immediately shifted the focus by criticising the opposing leaders (in this case, it was the Premier of Queensland and the Premier of Western Australia who insisted on using the strategy) instead of directly blaming the “voices’ of the people who supported the idea. 


In addition to the above techniques, the use of conjunctions, such as “but”, “although”, and “despite the fact that”, to connect contrasting expressions and the use of more credible ‘voices’ to reiterate speakers’ claims were often employed by the Thai and Australian authorities in order to close down opposing opinions, as the following examples illustrate: 


“According to the statistics,…dining in at a restaurant risks the spread of COVID because people talk to each other without wearing masks. Although it is not a worrying cluster, it does create small hotspots here and there, especially at bars and pubs.” (Thai Ru Su COVID page, 29 Jun 2021) 


The findings from contact tracing clearly showed that ‘most cases’ came from construction sites where there were no strict prevention/control measures stipulated by the CCSA in place.” (Thai Ru Su COVID page, 29 Jun 2021)


“Following updated health advice from NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant, stay-at-home orders will apply to all people who live in regional NSW.” (NSW Health Facebook page, 14 Aug 2021)


While responding to dissenting public ‘voices’ negatively by rejecting them, counter-arguing them, or using more powerful ‘voices’ to drown them out makes the messages strong and powerful, closing them down as such often antagonizes those disagreeing with the point of view, because they feel that their opinions are bluntly rejected in public without the opportunity for them to counter-argue. 

What the Government Wants to Say versus What People Want to Hear

The pandemic crisis requires governments to make timely decisions as the situation evolves daily. Each decision to do or not to do something inevitably generates public debate because different and diverse opinions are commonplace in multicultural societies. However, responding to different ‘‘voices’ by counter-arguing them in public discourse may not be the most effective way of communication when important messages need to reach the public during this critical time. Not only does it waste time and unnecessarily offend those who disagree with the government, but it also tends to take focus away from the key message that needs to be delivered to the public, minimising its exposure. Some incidents may even spark a dramatic public outcry and result in a never-ending war of opinion. 


Responding to different “voices” by counter-arguing them in public discourse may not be the most effective way of communication when important messages need to reach the public during this critical time.

One technique that governments may consider using when it comes to public health communication is to limit to a single ‘voice’. This monogloss technique is based on the principle that a message becomes clearer when other ‘voices’ are kept as minimal as possible. It is often used in legal documents or official government statements (Examples of the Australian Government’s Statements). This has the advantage that the public receives the message their government wants to communicate - without public attention being divided by conflicting ‘voices’ - which is likely to minimise dissatisfaction and any backlash from those who disagree with the government’s view. 


However, this type of communication has its drawbacks. For example, the message may sound uninteresting and not attract attention as much as it should, especially when it is wordier than necessary. Moreover, frequent communication without responding to dissenting ‘voices’ may create an image of a government as cold-hearted and unsympathetic.  


In public communication, the skill to balance responses to different ‘voices’ appropriately to the context is key to winning people’s hearts. Based on a preliminary observation, the author found that most statements delivered by the Australian Government are short and precise, using a semi-formal language level, which is simple and easy to understand. Written statements are often conveyed through the monogloss technique to avoid responding to ‘voices’ conflicting with the key message. In some statements, recognition of the public’s voices is made but it is positive and shows sympathy towards the receivers. An example is the final part of the Premier of New South Wales and the New South Wales Health Minister’s lockdown announcement on 17 Jul 2021.       


“These decisions have not been made lightly and we understand this is a difficult time for the community and appreciate their ongoing patience.”

Statement from the Premier of New South Wales and the New South Wales Health Minister

In public communication, the skill to balance responses to different “voices” appropriately to the context is key to winning people’s hearts.

We can see the technique used to respond to the public operates at a higher level of audience engagement when the Australian authorities address the public directly. Oftentimes, they use positive word choices and open a wider space of argumentative discourse, and if it is deemed necessary to reject dissenting ‘voices’, it is mostly done indirectly, as mentioned earlier. (Examples of videos and messages to the people of New South Wales from the Australian Prime Minister’s Facebook page)


By contrast, the Thai authorities’ announcements, be it declarations of a state of emergency or statements from the Office of the Prime Minister, are highly formal, with complex and lengthy language structure and vocabulary. Despite their formality, responses to disagreeing ‘voices’ are still incorporated into the messages. Indeed, it often seems that the government’s main aim is to respond to the audience’s ‘voices’, which has become one of the unique characteristics of Thai-style communication. (Examples of the Office of the Prime Minister’s declarations of a state of emergency and messages to the Thai people from the Thai Prime Minister’s Facebook page)

In addition to the verbal language used, non-verbal language (i.e. gestures, facial expressions, eye expressions and tone of voice) is also an important component in creating meaningful ‘voices’ that appropriately convey the speaker’s intention to the receivers. For example, in Australia, communication from the government to the public by press conference, whether from the Prime Minister, the state premiers or government officials in various levels, is usually delivered with serious but friendly gestures, a solid and calm tone of voice, and sympathetic facial and eye expressions. However, if a politician or a government official shows disrespectful gestures against the public, whether through arrogant and belittling actions, unsympathetic verbal expressions, or aggressive gestures - even if slightly - the Australian public will not hesitate to call the person “un-Australian” and attack them immediately. (Example: NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard slammed for ‘trainwreck’ press conference on state’s worst covid day so far)


Alternatively, the way in which the Thai Government communicates to the public is what the Thai people are used to, whereby the government acts authoritatively and uses its discourses to teach, rebuke or reprimand people in the same manner as what a parent would do to a child or a supervisor to a subordinate. The level of formality and tone of voice it employs are often inconsistent, thus confusing people to a certain degree. For example, sometimes, the government employs highly formal gestures and tone of voice, to the extent that people cannot understand the message. On other occasions, the government chooses to do it half-playfully, half-seriously as if it is talking to a close friend, which tends to undermine the credibility of the message, such as the Department of Disease Control’s advice about wearing masks, social- distancing and handwashing.

Transparent Information and Positive Attitudes are Key 

This article discusses some techniques for verbal and non-verbal languages, which are essential elements in effective communication from a government to the public. What is most important when it comes to health communication is, in fact, transparent and verifiable information. Whether the public perceives the news as positive or negative, communicating the truth frankly will help a government earn public trust. And trust is what makes people cooperate with a government in the long run. 


What is most important when it comes to health communication is, in fact, transparent and verifiable information. Whether the public perceives the news as positive or negative.

Research led by Professor Michael Bang Petersen, a political scientist and COVID-19 management advisor to the Government of Denmark, confirms that sustaining public trust in authorities is vital to effective health communication, not only during the current pandemic, but also to promote positive outcomes in future health emergencies. On the other hand, non-disclosure of information for fear of public panic, despite yielding a positive result in the short term, will cause the public to continue to lose trust in authorities in the long run. Professor Petersen therefore suggests that authorities must induce “optimistic anxiety” so that people are alert and anxious enough to follow authorities’ advice, and that they are given enough hope to convince themselves that the decisions they make will create positive changes. (For more information, please read “The unpleasant truth is the best protection against coronavirus.”)


A positive attitude is as crucial as transparent disclosure of information and truth. This means a mindset that shows respect towards the audience and views them as equal to oneself, with the trust that every individual has the intellectualability to understand. An example is shown in the persistent outbreak in South Sydney and South Western Sydney where there are diverse ethnic groups who do not speak English in their everyday lives. While many people call for increased punishment against those in the community who fail to follow the government’s regulations, the health authorities of New South Wales instead chose to have their daily statements and other important information about COVID translated into as many as 60 languages. The provision of translations thus allows diverse communities to receive information in languages that they can best understand. (Example of COVID information in Thai and signs in different languages in New South Wales)


In a crisis, communicating health information to the public is a challenge for every government in developed and developing countries alike. It requires governments and officials to demonstrate both positive attitudes and sincerity when communicating with the public. Communication must be based on scientific evidence, not political motivation - be it a daily report on new cases, deaths, number of vaccinated people, or vaccination side effects and risks. Moreover, medical professionals and public health experts within the government’s public relations team must firmly adhere to medical principles and ethics. This is because their ‘voices’ are a powerful force in building public trust, encouraging the public to follow the government's health policies, and preventing long-term failure in health communication.


Government ‘voices’ can never be powerful unless the ‘voices’ of the people are respected. Playing a game of ‘voices’ to increase political power may be what some government leaders do best. In reality, however, the most powerful ‘voices’ during the pandemic are the ‘voices’ that the people trust, easily understand and appreciate, not the ‘voices’ that keep numbers in the parliament under control or the ‘voices’ that command the armed forces. 

This article is part of the Comparative Assessment of the Pandemic Responses in Australia and Thailand, supported by the Australia-ASEAN Council under Australia-ASEAN Council COVID-19 Special Grants Round, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.