I had my regular call with Dr. David Nabarro, World Health Organization Special Envoy for Covid-19, this morning. We reflected on the third wave of Covid in the U.S. and the “monster second wave in Europe,” according to AXIOS. Dr. Nabarro confirmed that the U.S. is indeed going backwards, to 62,000 new cases per day, mostly in the Midwest and Mountain States. He added that the countries in Europe that had the most severe infections in the first round are going back to April levels, in Belgium, France, Holland, Spain and the UK. He commented that leaders have had challenges with consistent messaging and setting up systems to deal with the disease, most notably for testing.

He made an impassioned plea for a Third Way. “We cannot just be an open society, shielding the elderly and allowing all others to be exposed to the virus. Herd immunity does not work. At the same time, governments should not use lockdowns as a primary strategy. This is a sledgehammer approach that should only be used when things are really bad. It creates poverty and unemployment.”

The private sector is key to the success of the Third Way. “We need to find ways to get moving again. Protect your workforce in factories or at retail. Take on the function of testing. Work with employees to do contact tracing. Step up your communications with employees who are confused by conflicting messages from government leaders and public health authorities.” 

Dr. Nabarro was emphatic about the need for CEOs to lead the discussion with employees. “This should be a bi-weekly call, with a medical expert alongside to answer specific questions. The CEOs need to give strength to their teams, who may be fed up with working from home or worried about their elderly parents.” He also wants business to hold government accountable, to ensure that we get mask-wearing up from 50-60 percent of the population up to 90 percent or more, while guaranteeing care for the vulnerable members of society.

Business has a critical role in the five key elements of Covid-19 defense. Those five are physical distancing, hygiene/handwashing, isolation when sick, mask wearing and testing strategies.

As we head into winter in the Northern Hemisphere, we need to remember that the second wave of the Spanish flu in 1919 was far worse than the first wave. It is not realistic to just close everything down; citizens are fed up; government benefits are scaled back. The PR industry has to accelerate its work, to persuade people to accept Covid vaccines once they are proven safe and effective, to ensure that employees are kept apprised of the company’s financial status and operating policies (remote work, mental health support), and to be an active partner with government on education or public safety. There has never been a more important time to remember George Bernard Shaw’s immortal line, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Richard Edelman is CEO.