All the Proof We Need – And an Opportunity Too Important to Miss
October 6, 2021
Before Covid-19, when was the last time you thought about diseases or vaccines? Most people would check the “very rarely” box to that question. And at least for Americans, the same could be said of climate change prior to the triple threat of Delaware-sized wildfires, devastating floods and droughts in different parts of the world in 2021.
There’s a little-known but profoundly important reason why these events are so essential to communicators trying to convert awareness to sustained action on some of the most pressing issues of our time. It comes down to the availability heuristic, a bias many humans exhibit that essentially allows our brains to discount things that we have not experienced. An easier way of describing this cognitive trick is the popular saying “out of sight, out of mind.”
Prior to 2020, most people in wealthy countries did not think about infectious diseases in large part because of the very success of vaccines. American or European parents today don’t give a second thought to polio because their kids have been vaccinated against it, but it was a terrifying specter 70 years ago. The same goes for rubella, measles and many other diseases.
That these diseases are largely forgotten threats – even among a rising generation of healthcare practitioners who have never seen them – is a testament to the power of modern public health interventions. For most of the world’s population, including those who question the value of certain vaccines, we are all living proof of the efficacy of vaccination to fight diseases.
The emergence of Covid-19 serves as a vivid reminder of the threat of infectious disease and the power of science to confront it. Equally powerful is the social, political and economic movement taking shape to support one of the greatest public health mobilizations in the past half century. When nearly three billion people have been fully vaccinated against Covid and billions more want to be vaccinated, that level of social acceptance for vaccines can deliver the kind of nudge we need to get to herd immunity in many countries. When there is a dedicated push among G20 governments to increase government financing and global cooperation to prevent future pandemics, that is a win for public health. When small businesses and multinational companies alike proclaim that vaccines work without fear of losing customer support, that is a measure of the durable support for public health interventions resulting from the pandemic.
For people who have grown accustomed to a world without vaccine-preventable diseases, Covid-19 is an important reference point for overcoming the availability heuristic. This pandemic enables people to visualize what infectious pathogens can do and helps them understand the relevance of public health investments.
How can we squander this historic moment? One way is through ineffective communications practices. Time and again during the past 18 months, we have been plagued by poor messaging that has fostered confusion and fueled mistrust. The roots of our inability to match advances in medical science with effective communications stretch back centuries, but our immediate issues can be linked to the failure to heed lessons and best practices from the major outbreaks of the past two decades: SARS, H1N1, Ebola, Zika and major pandemic simulations. These events underscored the importance of communicating with the right audiences using messaging that is accurate, timely, instructive and unambiguous. Unfortunately, we’ve failed to heed those lessons and have missed the mark when it mattered most, as muddled guidance cascades from national and local government agencies to the rest of society.
It’s not too late to get it right. We have an extraordinary opportunity to galvanize mass awareness and support for public health interventions like vaccination. But to do better, communications experts need to be involved early and meaningfully. For example, medical experts and epidemiologists make up the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) and communications professionals are not fully represented. Broadening ACIP membership to include public health communications specialists, even in the consumer representative category, could be transformative.
Similarly, with the rise of public health as an important area of business and social impact investment for a range of companies, businesses should be evaluating the value of including public health communications experts on corporate boards or advisory councils. This will provide an important resource as companies seek to build trust, reputational value and operational resiliency at a time when the risk of public health threats – including climate change – is expected to grow.
Last, we should be working right now, while the pandemic is still raging, to reimagine the role of effective communications during public health crises. In addition to ensuring that communications experts have a seat at the table during simulations for future pandemics and climate emergencies, there are untapped opportunities to prepare the next generation of leaders to better respond and rebuild. One place to start is to foster greater collaboration between major schools of public health, journalism, policy and business to create the mesh of connections we need to deliver more cohesive, consistent communications around major public health moments.
The legacy we define from Covid-19 should be about extraordinary scientific achievement matched with effective public health policies, communications and global cooperation. We know this is not today’s reality, but it can be an attainable goal for the future. The time to start building the foundation to support that vision is now, while the proof of the destructive power of disease is still plain to see.