I listened to Professor Niall Ferguson of Stanford University this morning addressing Fortune Brainstorm Health. He said that the U.S. has “failed to learn from best practices on contact tracing; second waves of the disease are now evident in several states. The U.S. is practicing dumb re-opening, too soon and too broad.” He called for contact tracing and mandatory use of masks. The tenuous state of affairs was reinforced by fellow panelist Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island who spoke about the state’s efforts at the start of the Covid crisis when plastic bags of contacts of frequent travelers were being lugged around the Department of Public Health, prompting her to call Marc Benioff at Salesforce demanding his help in organizing the data.
This led me to a further conversation with Dr. David Nabarro, special advisor to the World Health Organization on Covid-19. He was incredibly blunt. “You have to level with people. You must do the three Cs: Communication; Consistency; Clarity. You must not have five different government officials with different messages. This leads to confusion and fantasy; a perverse fascination with finding an alternative reality. People are living in a nightmare of disease and economic dislocation. They want to wake up from the bad dream and go out to have an ice cream. We are granting the license to mis-behave. This explains the second wave in the U.S. and elsewhere.”
Dr. Nabarro said that “business will have to lead now. You cannot open too quickly. You must push your government leaders to stop their inconsistent leadership. You should try to keep as many of your employees as possible and commit to re-training of those who must depart. Collective leadership is the key, with business having to cooperate with government on ideas such as safety checks that guarantee customers that a restaurant is clean, employees have been tested and customers have their temperature taken at the door.”
There are further lessons for public health, notably that 80 percent of the cases and 90 percent of the mortality is in middle- and upper-class nations. Dr. Deborah Birx, who is running the Covid response for the White House, said on an Atlantic Council call today, “There are too many co-morbidities in the U.S., such as diabetes. These are preventable through exercise and better nutrition.” Another scary statistic came from Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-IL) who said that blacks are dying at the same rate as white people ten years older. “We need to focus on lower wage employees to make sure that they have health care.”
Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA, is setting a great example for other businesses in how to lead. The league is moving players from 22 of its 30 teams to a secure area, which has been dubbed ‘the bubble’, in Orlando’s Disney World. Before players can come on campus they will be tested. Then there will be daily testing, physical distancing and mandatory wearing of masks. “It is an extraordinary time. We will lose a lot of money. But we want the world to see basketball,” he said in his interview at Fortune Health Brainstorm. He will go to the campus but will not interact with the players and coaches.
The lockdowns and restrictions on beaches and entertainment and dining venues are putting our patience to the test, especially as summer has now officially kicked off. But we are in the middle of a pandemic that is showing no signs of fading, so we do not get to dictate the terms. This now becomes a matter of persuasion with a focus on moving the sentiment from fear and selfishness to responsibility and mutuality. As communications professionals we need to communicate through words and actions that wearing a mask is an act of public responsibility, not of weakness. And that the practice of social distancing is a matter of necessity not simply an option. Communications has the power to shift mindsets and behavior, as happened in the first phase. Remember the words of John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts, “All the parts of this body being thus united are made so contiguous in a special relation as they must needs partake of each other’s strength and infirmity; joy and sorrow, weal and woe. If one member suffers, all suffer with it, if one be in honor, all rejoice with it.”
Richard Edelman is CEO.