Frank Luntz, noted Republican pollster, released a survey this week on words that will work best in persuading Americans to change their behavior as Covid-19 spikes again. He found that lockdown is a no go, stay at home is a winner. Mandate is a bad word, protocol works. National duty fails, personal responsibility wins. Science-based achieves little, fact-based is best. The number of infected is less effective than the number of deaths. Covid-19 is a loser, pandemic a preferred option. We need to de-emphasize the rapid development of vaccines because speed turns off people who assume the worst on political motive or insufficient supervision.
All of this comes as the winter season begins in earnest and cases rise exponentially, especially in the U.S. where more than 200,000 people were infected yesterday, and one million cases are expected this week. I spoke to our clients and our colleagues over the past two days with Dr. David Nabarro, World Health Organization Special Envoy for Covid-19. He sees three patterns of response by nations in the wake of Covid. First is ‘Keep It Away, Hold It At Bay.’ There are at least 20 nations doing this including Australia, China, Japan, Korea, New Zealand and Singapore: they account for about 20 percent of the world population. There is a whole-of-nation focus on trusting people, detecting cases quickly, isolating promptly, and interrupting transmission. Response systems are locally integrated with emphasis on localized testing, movement restriction and contact tracing. The second pattern is ‘Surge and Ebb,’ where—as cases build up—governments impose restrictions, eventually moving to lockdown. Then the incidence of disease gradually reduces, and restrictions are relaxed. People move around more and some weeks later there is another surge of cases, followed by movement restrictions and lockdown again. This is the case in as many as 100 nations perhaps containing 60 percent of global population, notably in Europe and the Middle East. The third pattern is ‘Surge and Surge Again.’ This is the U.S., Mexico, Brazil, as well as some nations in other regions, perhaps accounting for up to 20 percent of the world’s population. Levels of infection continue to rise in many locations. There are repeated spikes of infection increasingly widely spread across countries (beyond urban centers): not everywhere, because of some excellent sub-national responses. There will be a major long-term challenge to gain control of the infection in coming months. National politics do get in the way of public health: this leads to a confrontational attitude to national and global institutions (such as WHO).
Mask wearing, physical distancing, voluntary isolation if symptomatic, and frequent testing will likely be with us for the entirety of 2021. Dr. Nabarro believes that the vaccine will reach the necessary 70 percent of population by late fall next year. “We cannot afford to slack off. Business will be particularly important in the Surge and Surge Again regions, filling the void left by government. Trust is the key; people are the solution. Initially, the numbers of people who take the vaccine will not be enough to stop the pandemic; it will reduce disease but not control transmission.” He also insisted on public health education in the vaccine space, most notably transparency on clinical trials. “This must begin immediately because time is the key to acceptance. We cannot force it.” We must also demystify the rapid development of the vaccines by demonstrating that there has been a unique level of collaboration among scientists to get to the end product. There are still unresolved questions on the vaccine that must be answered by further trials, including the length of time of immunity afforded by the first vaccine (when to get a booster shot?).
I posed four challenges for business as we enter this dark period before the vaccine is available to a wide swath of the population. First, what should be our role in vaccination of employees? I argued that our job is education, not persuasion. We need to give people the facts and let them decide when to take the injection and which one to select. Second, what is our approach to return to work? I suggested that we leave it to employees, as they are performing well thus far in work from home. There may be sectors such as finance, where traders are better off together at their desks, but there needs to be proof of that necessity. Third, what can be done for employees whose companies will come under further pressure in the coming months, such as restaurant chains or amusement parks. I recommended that there be transparency on financial condition and effort to out-place those affected. Fourth, what is the basis of a return to more normal operations in travel and tourism or entertainment? Evidence of a longer-term problem was Warner Brothers’ announcement today that its entire 2021 roster of upcoming films will be released simultaneously in theaters and on the streaming service HBO Max, signaling a shift from relying solely on theaters. I said that we need to start now to persuade consumers to overcome fears, as Edelman has done for the State of Hawaii, which announced last week a mandatory testing protocol before any visitor steps on a plane to the island. Aside from posing these questions, I urged business to continue to lead in partnering with others—to work with NGOs on coordinating local relief efforts and vaccine education; and to work with Governments to help solve the social problems laid bare in 2020.
Thomas Paine, American patriot, wrote in December 1776 after the Americans were routed in their defense of New York City and fled south into New Jersey away from the pursuing British. “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country. But he that stands by it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman…Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it. …I love the man that can smile in trouble, can gather strength from distress and grow brave by reflection.” We can do this together.
Richard Edelman is CEO.