COVID-19 has equipped us with a toolbox to tackle future pandemics

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Kathy Bloomgarden, Chief Executive Officer, Ruder Finn

  • Misinformation and misunderstanding have been rampant throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, causing unequal vaccine uptake and prolonging the outbreak.
  • But two years of managing the virus has equipped us with the knowledge and technology required to stamp out this virus, and future ones.
  • By promoting unorthodox voices, exploiting analytics and predictive modelling, and focusing on hyperlocal communities, future outbreaks need not be as devastating as COVID-19.

COVID-19 has upturned the lives of individuals, families and the economy. Since the start of the pandemic, scientific misunderstanding and misinformation — whether it is over the effectiveness of masks or vaccines, or the deadliness of the virus itself — has prolonged and worsened the harm caused.

The bad news is that, due to changes in the climate, population, food systems and supply chains, novel disease outbreaks at the scale of COVID-19 are only getting more likely. However, thanks to our experience in managing this pandemic, we are now better equipped to handle future outbreaks.

Several key lessons from the pandemic will help to improve trust in science, and create a toolbox to actively bridge knowledge gaps, inspire positive health behaviors, and prevent the spread of another infodemic, which could slow down our ability to manage the spread of diseases as they emerge.

When COVID-19 emerged, the cadence of scientific briefings from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as well as healthcare authorities and experts, were not enough to reach the vaccine-hesitant segments of the population.

Certain demographics, such as underserved minorities, Gen Z, and those with varied political views, were still lagging in vaccine rates. Reaching and convincing these individuals required diverse voices and varied channels.

Three key drivers will remain essential tools for the years ahead: unorthodox voices, precision and digital targeting analytics, and hyperlocal activities.

Leveraging unorthodox voices to confront COVID-19

Take Gen Z as an example. 41% of Gen Z uses TikTok as a primary source for their daily dose of news — more than any other generation.

For the last two years doctors have taken to TikTok every day to debunk vaccine misinformation, explain the science of mRNA, compare how vaccines might differ, and more. Macro and micro influencers have hopped on trends encouraging vaccination and social distancing.

The rise of unorthodox voices on social media meets the demands of younger audiences to receive factual information from a credible or trustworthy source, but in a personified, entertaining and easy-to-digest way.

CDC data also showed that vaccination rates within the Black community were lagging behind other ethnicities, inspiring more than 1,000 micro content creators on TikTok to partner with local grassroot organizations. Together, they brought awareness around the pandemic with the “See Friends Again” campaign, which educated young people of colour about the importance of COVID-19 and vaccination.

Nontraditional voices also influenced change through word-of-mouth initiatives. The state of Wisconsin, for example, created a community ambassador programme — the Crush Covid Crew — to train volunteers from high-risk areas to talk to their neighbours about vaccines and dispel misinformation about them.

Utilizing precision and digital targeting analytics

From reporting COVID-19 hotspots in real-time, to mapping nearby vaccination sites, to revealing vaccine hesitant communities, adoption of new digital technologies played an essential role in enabling healthcare officials to respond to the COVID pandemic.

In the U.S., digital mapping tools were pivotal in understanding vaccination rates as it related to demographic factors. County and city officials were able to pinpoint “vaccine deserts” and prioritize them for the allocation of resources. Georgia’s “Count Me In” initiative used similar technology to map vaccination sites and uncover potential barriers to vaccination, including lack of computer access and low rates of car ownership.7

And for reaching minorities, too, technology has played a role. California’s Department of Public Health used a Spanish- and English-language chatbot to help spread reliable information about COVID-19 and the safety of vaccines.

Specifically intended to reach the Spanish-speaking community, the chatbot helped users access information for booking vaccination appointments and obtaining vaccination records.

In another example, scientists and healthcare experts started the #ScienceUpFirst initiative, a bilingual campaign that targeted diverse sociodemographic populations across Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok, and offered relevant, evidence-based content in a succinct yet engaging way.

Hyperlocal efforts

Experts are now turning to utilizing data in a hyperlocal way. In doing so, navigate and change behaviours by understanding and tailoring action to particular communities.

COVID-19 should be managed in the same way that weather patterns are managed: using test results and public health data to forecast and model the level and spread of disease in a given area.

Managing data in real time can help model “when and where” pandemic measures, such as mask wearing and lockdowns, must be mandated. It will also guide decisions about moving healthcare resources to where they are needed most, optimizing our ability to quickly treat patients and slow down the spread of disease.

Vaccine maker Moderna partnered last year with Albertsons supermarket chain and neighbourhood social network Nextdoor to create the Nextdoor Vaccine Map. The app was created to help increase the vaccination rate by providing details on sites and scheduling appointments.

Rather than leverage the influence of high-profile celebrities, the Nextdoor app functioned as a neighborhood bulletin board and centered around local voices such as pastors and high school coaches.

Nextdoor’s CEO, Sarah Friar, summed up the app’s value: “Finding the right influencer is the key to getting into that neighbour’s psyche and getting them to perhaps change their mind.”

The experience gained and lessons learned during two years of COVID-19 will be essential in facing future pandemic threats and emergent diseases. We must use unorthodox voices, analytics and predictive modeling and focus on hyperlocal communities to deal with future outbreaks.

While COVID-19 was devastating in the U.S. and beyond, the next pandemic need not be so.

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