We enter 2021 with a huge hill to climb. Even as new vaccines developed in record time promise an eventual end to the Covid-19 pandemic and a path to economic recovery, the virus rages on, causing illness, death and economic desolation around the globe. We have witnessed new levels of industry collaboration and innovation in vaccine science and healthcare delivery, yet we have also seen devastating inequities, deepened by the pandemic, that threaten our ability to translate these scientific victories into better lives for all.
Exacerbating the impact of the pandemic, and eroding trust globally, is a worldwide infodemic. Edelman’s 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer shows more than half of respondents believe media (59 percent), government (57 percent) and business leaders (56 percent) are deliberately trying to mislead people by sharing information they know to be false. It is also worthwhile noting that trust in all media is at record lows. In a world of misinformation and media echo chambers, how can we rebuild the trust needed to enable the acceptance of science and innovation to create a brighter future for humanity?
A most concerning fallout of the infodemic is how it fuels vaccine hesitancy. At the time of our study, only one in three respondents planned to take the vaccine as soon as they can; those with poor information hygiene—not carefully vetting the news and information they receive—are less likely (59 percent) to get vaccinated within a year compared to those with good information hygiene (70 percent).
Further confounding vaccine uptake, and further eroding trust in institutions, are the numerous obstacles countries are facing in vaccine distribution at federal and local levels. To improve vaccination rates, government and business alike must lead with facts while listening with empathy to people’s perspectives and fears. Many of those who are vaccine hesitant, especially in diverse communities, have concerns justly rooted in historic precedent and current inequities.
Every single employer has a responsibility to be a source of unbiased, factual information about the vaccines and to build trust in vaccination through advocacy vs. mandates. They are well positioned to do this: "My Employer" is the most trusted source (61 percent) of information, outranking national government (58 percent) and media reports (57 percent). While individual medical and scientific experts (such as Dr. Anthony Fauci of the U.S. and Dr. Ashley Bloomfield of New Zealand) offer stellar examples of fact-based, accessible communication, they cannot be standalone voices – there must be sector industry-wide commitment and practice.
Encouragingly, the health sector is among the most trusted sectors, at 66 percent, trailing only technology (70 percent). The question is whether leading players—pharmaceutical and biotech companies, hospitals and payers—will leverage this trust to address urgent issues, thus building more trust, or squander it by failing to act. We saw how quickly government’s Spring trust bubble burst when it allowed politics to stymie progress on the pandemic.
One way the health sector can build trust is to work harder at explaining how it does what it does. There have been broad calls for “transparency” for years, but this has traditionally been around pricing models, revenue and spend. The call now is for clear and transparent communication around how the industry operates. How are patients chosen for clinical trials? How are vaccines developed? How are priorities determined? These questions are all the more pertinent when we consider the powerful example of the newly approved Covid-19 vaccines, which showcase what can be achieved in a matter of months when expertise, funding and politics align.
Another trust-building tool is a renewed political and commercial focus on policies that confront healthcare inequity. The past decades have seen remarkable global progress on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (declines in maternal and child mortality, increases in vaccination rates and life expectancy), but Covid-19 has undone much of that progress in a matter of months. We are seeing a record mass-class divide of 16 points (informed public at 68 percent trust, mass population at 52 percent), with 25 of 28 markets showing double-digit trust gaps. Plaudits to U.S. President-elect Joe Biden for naming Marcella Nunez-Smith as the country’s first-ever adviser focused on combating racism and racial disparities in healthcare. But this is a global problem, with 62 percent globally believing those with less education, less money and fewer resources are being unfairly burdened by Covid-19; improving the healthcare system now ranks as the most urgent foundational problem to address, with 70 percent saying it has increased in importance from a year ago.
My fervent wish for 2021, and our urgent task, is that we return to embracing science and to empowering communities with knowledge to tame this terrible pandemic and reclaim our lives and livelihoods. We must call out misinformation when we see it, must support and elevate our medical and scientific communities and must hold other institutions and leaders to account. Only when we return to a higher standard of integrity and decency will trust follow, and only with trust will we be able to rebuild society.
Kirsty Graham is CEO of Edelman Public Affairs and Global Chair of Edelman’s Health practice.