OECD Forum Virtual Event: “Communicating on public health and vaccines in a climate of mis/disinformation”

Banner image: Ivan Kruk

Like Comment

As part of an OECD Forum series, our virtual event “Communicating on Public Health and Vaccines in a Climate of Mis/Disinformation” took place Thursday 19 November from.

Please note this event has ended and registration is now closed, but you can still watch the replay below – don't forget to register to get updates on future events!

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed nearly every aspect of our lives. Unprecedented lockdown measures have put our resilience and mental health to the test, social distancing practices have reconfigured spatial relations, school closures have exposed inequalities across communities and business shutdowns have disrupted economic activities.

In this context of profound changes and uncertainty, the development of the COVID-19 vaccine is seen as both a crucial step towards recovery and as a trigger for polarising conversations. Indeed, building and sustaining confidence in a potential vaccine is another battle yet to be won. Over the past few months, the rise in anti-vaccination protests across the world has shown the extent to which some segments of society see the COVID-19 vaccine as a threat rather than a lifesaving solution. In addition, the foreseen fast tracking of a COVID-19 vaccine is also triggering suspicion beyond anti-vaxx circles.

Prior to the current pandemic, the scientific community had already witnessed the dangers of mis- and disinformation. Anti-vaccination movements capitalise on people’s fears by exploiting information gaps, disseminating unfounded assumptions and appealing to protective instincts. This was the case with the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, parents delayed children’s vaccination after listening to claims that kids developed autism spectrum disorder. The dissemination of falsehoods about the vaccine is believed to have contributed to the global measles spike in 2017. Plummeting vaccination rates led many experts to call for compulsory vaccination for all children starting primary school.

Today, COVID-19 disinformation narratives have progressively shifted their focus from the origins of the virus and potential effective treatments to the hopes for a vaccine. The advent of social media platforms has brought an unprecedented opportunity to “viralise” anti-vaxx messages. As stated by Prof. David Broniatowski in The Lancetwhat was previously a fringe opinion is becoming a transnational movement”.

Also on the Forum Network: Fighting Disinformation: A key pillar of the COVID-19 recovery by Anthony Gooch, Director of the OECD Forum

The unprecedented Joint Pledge on Vaccine Safety signed in September by pharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca J&J, Moderna, MSD and Pfizer sought to address this concern. Leading CEOs vowed to abide by rigorous efficacy and safety standards in the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, without ceding to political pressures. The recent delays and pauses in large-scale clinical trials speak in support of this pledge, as companies seem to be following safety standards without seeking premature approval.

In August 2020, a survey conducted by Ipsos MORI and King’s College London found that 1 in 6 Britons (16%) were unlikely to or definitely would not get a vaccine if one became available. According to this research, respondents who opposed a vaccine tended to have “beliefs, attitudes and values that reflected scepticism about science and authority and less concern about the COVID-19 pandemic.” In addition, according to the Pew Research Center, the share of US citizens that would definitely get a coronavirus vaccine if it were available to them now stands at just 21% – half the share that said this four months ago.

Although it is hard to pinpoint disinformation as the root cause behind these statistics, it must be seen as a significant contributing factor to people’s hesitancy around vaccines.

The development of the COVID-19 vaccine faces challenges on three distinct fronts. From a scientific and technological standpoint, the goal is to develop an effective and safe vaccine, urgently and in the vast quantity required. From a public health perspective, the aim is to work towards immunisation on a global scale. This can only happen if the vaccine is  widely available at an affordable cost, with prior concerted co-operation between countries. Finally, from a communications perspective, the challenge is to guarantee the uptake of the vaccine with a clear communications strategy, countering misleading narratives and providing timely and reliable information that will boost public trust in immunisation campaigns.

If the COVID-19 vaccine is to be a valuable asset in the recovery, effective action must be taken across all three fronts.

What is the role of communicators in this endeavour? The challenge of communicating on public health issues in a climate of disinformation is far from new, but the “infodemic” accompanying COVID-19 has magnified the difficulties of “cutting through the noise” with expertise and credibility.

COVID-19 has shone a brighter light on the challenges for science communication, and notably how evidence interacts with our belief systems. When people encounter information that conflicts with their existing worldviews, they may be inclined to reject it. In the “post-truth” era, independent evidence-based information is not enough to overcome this human tendency: the spotlight is no longer placed solely on the message itself, but on who delivers it.

With this in mind, the scientific community and other key suppliers of reliable information (international organisations, journalists, fact-checkers…) should join forces to “humanise” the vaccine development process.

Regardless of how praise-worthy the vaccine development process may be from a scientific point of view, its value will be completely undermined if a large share of the population refuses to take the vaccine. This is where the interdependence between science and communication comes into play: without effective communication strategies, the impact of this scientific achievement will be severely diminished.

Like any other medical treatment, vaccines come with risks and side effects. Ultimately, however, they will lead us to the eradication of diseases and ensure the well-being of society as a whole. As the race for the COVID-19 vaccine continues, it is imperative to use this time to build confidence in the cure before it becomes available. Although we cannot inoculate ourselves against disinformation practices permanently, we can develop immunity over time as long as we place strategic and reliable communications at the heart of our efforts.

Related topics

Tackling COVID-19 Post-truth Health International Co-operation

Whether you agree, disagree or have another point of view, join the Forum Network for free using your email or social media accounts and tell us what's happening where you are. Your comments are what make the network the unique space it is, connecting citizens, experts and policy makers in open and respectful debate.

Willemien Bax

Head, OECD Forum, OECD

Willemien Bax is currently Head of the OECD Forum, the Organisation's largest annual public event. Ms Bax, a Dutch national, has over 20 years of experience in public affairs, working with governments, as well as non-governmental organisations and the private sector. Prior to joining the OECD, from 2001 to beginning 2010, Ms Bax worked with the European Consumers Organisation (BEUC) as Deputy Director-General where she oversaw BEUC’s public affairs and media relations strategies in a number of public policy areas ranging from transparency and governance to food, environment, health, economic and legal affairs. In 2004, she initiated a training programme financed by the European Commission, for all consumer organisations in the EU, as well as potential EU-candidate countries. The training focused on giving consumer organisations the tools to develop effective public affairs and communication strategies. In 2009, in her capacity as European Chair of the Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialogue, she contributed to debates on major international public policy issues such as financial regulation, innovation and energy efficiency.

No comments yet.