Three Pandemic Strategies That Make You Go Mmmmm. Why Are We Not Doing This?

Sitting in my room on day 5 of isolation with Covid seems like an appropriate setting to write a rambling, opinionated post about the pandemic response.

This is for everyone, whether politician or pleb; delta-dented or asymptomatic; first in the Pfizer queue, vax-curious, or braving-it au naturelle. I don’t care if you take vaccines, wear masks or stick Ecstasy pills up your bum. That’s your business. I know it’s an emotive topic so I’ll try to include a little something to trigger everyone. ;p

As always, everything I write is in pencil because I’m happy to have my mind changed. I’m just calling a few things out here as I see them. If you think I’ve got something wrong, send me a signal.

So let’s get into it… As the clickbait headline suggests, I’m going to share 3 things I think we could be doing better:

1. Stop putting people in boxes

Are you an “anti-vaxxer”? One of the “obedient sheeple”? Do you “trust the science”?

These terms are bullshit. They’re not useful. First, let’s address the beef.

An “anti-vaxxer” is someone fundamentally opposed to taking medicines that prevent diseases. It’s a position that probably doesn’t accurately describe your uncle who thinks it’s still too early to take the Moderna vaccine. Stop using the term. Use “vaccine hesitant” if that’s what you mean or just “unvaccinated” if that’s what you mean.

The vast majority of people who have taken the vaccines aren’t “obedient sheeple”. Most people have some level of distrust in politicians, corporations and media narratives — and acknowledge that power and money and greed and stupidity and jealousy all get mixed into the big complex mess that is our imperfect world.

We evolved as tribal creatures and social identity is important to our Hominid brains — and we have a natural tendency to put people into little imaginary boxes. Try not to. The us vs. them idea is a trap. We have more in common than we might realise.

The way “trust the science” is being used really annoys me too. Not because I don’t trust in science. I do. I know incredible work has been done by scientists in the fight against the virus. But because overall, the pandemic response doesn’t really look like science. It looks like the stuff they tell you NOT to do in science (eg. changing hypotheses to fit desired outcomes, disregarding inconvenient data, not declaring conflicts of interest). Trusting the science doesn’t look like 30 rich countries on their 3rd and 4th doses of vaccines and 150 poor countries with almost none. Trusting the science doesn’t look like protecting the worldwide patents of 3 big pharma companies while not even recognising the vaccines that don’t have patents in rich white countries (eg. the Chinese, Russian or Indian vaccines). The pandemic response is more like a heady mix of politics and science with a good squeeze of corporate lobbying for extra bite. So by all means trust the science, but don’t pretend the official guidelines and restrictions are the science.

Let’s make an effort to treat people who have arrived at different decisions with a bit of respect. Let’s try to understand each others’ positions. We’re all on team human and we’re all trying to make sense of what’s going on as best we can. Whatever we feel at the moment, let’s not act like we know what’s right because, on some level, we’re all winging it. People have different views, and that’s OK. None of us have lived through something like this before and theories of the future are just that.

2. Fix the messaging

This one is for all the politicians and media company executives that are no doubt reading this. (I told you there would be something for everyone)

Photo by Mark König on Unsplash

The narrative feels like it keeps evolving to fit the pre-determined idea that vaccines are the golden ticket out of virusville. If we get a high percentage of people vaxed, we can achieve herd immunity and get back to the good old days when people shook hands rather than bumping fists. And of course vaccines have eradicated diseases in the past so this sounds right. And we want it to be right.

But we’re now in the third year of this thing. We’ve learned a lot more. It feels like we’re doing mental gymnastics to try to hold on to that narrative even though it’s no longer on the table. This is how (in my memory anyway) the official messaging has evolved:

Official Message v1

The vaccines prevent you catching Covid. Get vaccinated for the good of the community so we can achieve herd immunity, and for the benefit of the elderly and vulnerable. Here are lots of graphs and statistics. Don’t be selfish, get vaccinated. OK.

Official Message v2 (some time later)

The vaccines don’t prevent you catching or spreading Covid. What gave you that idea? That’s not how vaccines work, silly! The vaccines prevent serious illness and hospitalisation. You take them so you don’t get really sick. It’s to prevent the health service from being overwhelmed. We never said anything about herd immunity. Here are lots of graphs and statistics, divided by country so you can follow along and wave flags like you do with the Olympics.

Official Message v3 (some more time later)

The vaccines DO stop you catching Covid, but only old Covid. They don’t work on the new one. So we all need to take a third shot. Three shots work great against the new variant. Two don’t. So, to summarise, we can all still catch and spread the virus regardless of how many vaccines we’ve had. So get another shot to be sure. Here are lots of graphs and statistics. Some data was redacted to protect the public.

The messaging is inconsistent, contradictory, and confusing. Double and triple jabbed people know they can still catch and spread it — but we’re still being told the unvaccinated people are the problem — even though it increasingly seems like the main people they’re putting at risk are themselves. But somehow this mess we’re in is all on them. The story doesn’t quite make sense any more now that the herd immunity idea has gone down the plug-hole — but we’re still telling it.

So here’s what you politicians and media people need to do:

Start treating people like adults. Accept that some people don’t want to get jabbed and don’t try to shame them for their decisions. Instead, give them clear messaging about how to look after themselves, stay safe, and not spread the virus if they catch it. Talk about testing and nutrition and hydration and medication and ventilation and turning your bedroom door into a make-shift airlock to stop your housemates catching it.

We give drug users advice on how to safely inject heroin. I don’t think it’s that outrageous to offer vaccine-hesitant people the same standard of care.

And give accurate and transparent info about benefits and risks. Stop compelling the big tech platforms to remove any voices which could encourage vaccine hesitancy. Fair enough if you want to remove actual fake news. But factual or opinion-based content that goes against the just-take-vaccines narrative is being removed. It looks weak and is causing a lot of distrust. We should fight bad information with good information. If the plan isn’t strong enough to stand up to criticism, then you need to go work on the plan.

Come up with an exit strategy to give us hope. Sell the dream. Hire some good-looking, charismatic people to get the new messaging out there. Reassure us that the measures you’re asking us to take are for us, and not for the Pfizer shareholders. I think this is important. Let the people know you’re on their side (because you look kinda suss at the moment).

And please stop with the barrage of data. Facts and figures don’t change people’s minds. There’s lots of research into this stuff. If your comms people don’t know this stuff, get some new comms people.

On the topic of communicating with people about vaccines, this 3-hour podcast episode (long but worth it) has some great insights into what works and what doesn’t.

3. Schnelltests are easy and work. Let’s do more of them

I went to a party on New Year’s Eve. The hosts asked that everyone attending do a Schnelltest (aka. lateral flow, aka. antigen test) no more than 4 hours before they arrived. Two people who were meant to go tested positive — so they didn’t come. A win for testing. Everyone else tested negative, attended, and enjoyed the evening. The day after the party, two people who were there tested positive — but nobody else at the party caught it off them. Another win for testing.

Anecdotal of course, and I know the tests aren’t perfect but they do work, and they’re cheap, quick and easy. And they give a good indication of whether a person has Covid — unlike someone’s vaccine status. A party full of unvaccinated, tested people is safer than a party full of boosted, untested people. So yeah… tests are cool.

I don’t get why tests aren’t being used differently. It seems to me that if governments purchased them in bulk and distributed them through their own national postal systems, they could coordinate huge-scale synchronised test campaigns. For example, every person in the country gets a self-test through their letterbox and everyone has to test themselves at midday on Saturday. Loads and loads of people are surprised to find out they’ve actually got Covid, and they can all isolate for a few days and take a big chunk out of the infected numbers. Without testing those people will be spreading it unknowingly. I reckon it could be quite an effective strategy.

Outro

Anyway… that’s all I’ve got. Kinda bored of talking about this topic so much recently tbh, but glad to have written some ideas down. Good way to get things straight in my own head. Feel free to gimme a comment or some claps if you dig it (or if you don’t).

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