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Communications in a divided nation

A house divided against itself, cannot stand. No nation has lost more people to COVID-19 than the US. One would think that a fact like that would unite us against a common foe. But instead, it has unmasked our weaknesses, and divided us. As the nation stands at a crossroad, the legacy of disinformation is holding us back. The tragedy of the loss of more than 600,000 Americans is not enough to break through disinformation in which almost 3 in 10 Americans distrust the clear solution to our pain, getting vaccinated.

Communication plays a big role in this. Not all of those who fear vaccines are easily lumped into one bucket: There are those who have never been given a fair shake by our extraordinarily expensive media system. There are those who lost trust in Big Pharma years ago, or have been forced to pay outrageous sums for life saving drugs. And, there are those who live off the grid and don’t trust the system. And, the most discussed group — those who listen to politicians who say you have a right not to be vaccinated, and cast doubt on the scope of the pandemic, and the easy solutions at hand.

Obviously, taking sides around scientific solutions is a dangerous game. But some of the roots of this crisis of confidence come from simply making poor communications choices. The most obvious of which was calling the highly successful march to find vaccines “Operation Warp Speed.” Speed is not what one wants in their vaccine. It sent a message of speed over efficiency, and that was a poor choice. Then we have our vaccine cards, simple scraps of paper, often handwritten — and feeling like an afterthought rather than a complete approach. But the big mistake was education. For years “anti-vax” movements percolated, and the needed efforts to address people’s concerns were made at a low level. Even as the nation struggled at the height of the pandemic, little outreach was made on a local or national effort to win people over. The assumption was, folks will be lining up to get vaccinated. And for 60% of Americans that was quite true. But what about the rest? The working class Americans who hear the vaccines were rushed (even though they were years in the making)? Communities of color that have first hand knowledge of the systemic racism that permeated our medical system? And those on the right, whose leaders chose to pander to “individualists” over the collective good?

Obviously making vaccines a political issue defies logic — and as we see infection rates soar in southern States that took the wrong side in the COVID Wars, we wonder, how could anyone choose a road that leads to certain death for innocents who chose to believe in the wrong narrative?

The solution is found in the cause. Yes, the CDC and some on the left, failed to take the threat of vaccine fears seriously enough. But, now the change has to come from elected leaders who have not called for their followers to be vaccinated to act. At this point, with the Delta variant sweeping through the ranks of the unvaccinated, they have a lot to lose. Research is clear that vaccines, masks and basic safeguards will help to reduce the infection rate to the point that we can get back to our lives. But a lack of vaccination combined with no social prevention is a deadly mix that will only lead to a needless loss of life.

The factor that divides Americans is not the truth, but trust. Americans have always cherished their spirit of individualism. And, they have had a singular ability to re-invent their past to justify actions, or a lack of action. Here is a sobering fact we cannot hide: 675,000 Americans died of the Spanish Influenza in 1919-20. Today, we are on track to pass that, despite a century of medical breakthroughs.

Allowing a pandemic to take advantage of our nation's weakness and divisions comes at a huge price. In war, we have put aside disagreements to work together, and this is a war. Sometimes the challenges in life give us the opportunity to reevaluate our priorities. That is where we are today, it's time to think of each other, and clearly communicate our values.

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