Omicron is a new hurdle. We’ll have to up our game to end the pandemic

Competing testing sites in mid-town Manhattan that sprung up after Omicron showed up in New York.

It’s the news we were dreading. A new and highly mutated coronavirus variant is spreading around the globe. As we wait to find out exactly how dangerous it is, one thing is clear: Omicron is an own goal. It’s proof that our current efforts aren’t enough to bring an end to the pandemic. It’s time we upped our game.

The good news is we aren’t back at square one. This is not March 2020; we’ve come a long way since then. We have lifesaving vaccines capable of reducing transmission and therefore chances for the virus to mutate. We know global vaccination is the only way out of the pandemic. We can prevent the next variant by getting doses into more arms. So, how do we do that?

A plan is already in place. The World Health Organization (WHO) aims to have 40% of people in all countries vaccinated by the end of the year, and 70% by mid-2022. But with the end of the year looming, many nations are struggling to meet those goals.

We are now facing battles on two fronts: vaccine hesitancy and vaccine inequity. To end the pandemic, we must tackle both. First, rich countries must share doses more widely. Second, we must get better at reaching the hesitant and communicating the benefits of vaccination.

Sharing doses was, until recently, our biggest problem. Too many people still haven’t been offered a single vaccine dose. Rich nations are still destroying surplus doses while the poorest go without. This inequity is not only immoral, it’s stupid. And it created the conditions for Omicron to emerge.

But there’s a second issue, one we communicators mustn’t ignore. Millions have refused the vaccine after being exposed to misinformation, rumors, and lies designed to undermine the vaccination effort. We must find ways to reach them and win them back round. Frankly, we don’t have a choice.

Our initiative Verified has helped develop a guide to making one-on-one conversations with the unvaccinated more effective. The main takeaway is to take time to understand the perspective of the individual in front of you before trying to address their concerns. This also works on a larger, community scale.

With this in mind it’s worth seeking common factors behind vaccine skepticism and systematically addressing them. One uniting thread is that people across the globe seem drawn to anti-vaxx messages that chime with their existing distrust of government and health authorities. Our job is to regain that trust.

Take South Africa, for example, the nation where the Omicron variant was first identified, where just 25% of people are fully vaxxed. In neighboring Namibia, it’s just 11%. But the problem isn’t down to supply issues. Both countries recently requested a temporary pause in deliveries of doses, fearing they will spoil.

Something else is going on that’s making people wary of the vaccine. It seem it’s trust that’s lacking. And, in a region with a long and troubled history of abuse and neglect by foreign colonial powers and medical institutions, that’s hardly surprising. Against this backdrop, regaining trust won’t be easy. But we communicators have to try.

Half the the battle will be in rowing back from the language of division, of us and them. Vaccinated or not, and for whatever reason, we are still all in this together. The virus is still circulating and mutating, it needs a global response. We can’t afford more dangerous variants, or another 5 million deaths.

So, as the next phase of this awful pandemic dawns, let’s regroup. Let’s discuss strategies to break out of our current cycle of neglect and panic. Omicron or not, vaccines remain our key weapon in this fight. If doses are lacking, we share. If trust is lacking, we win it back.




Chief Communicator #UnitedNations promoting a peaceful, sustainable, just & humane world. Author: A Hope More Powerful than the Sea. Podcast: Awake at Night.

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Melissa Fleming

Melissa Fleming

Chief Communicator #UnitedNations promoting a peaceful, sustainable, just & humane world. Author: A Hope More Powerful than the Sea. Podcast: Awake at Night.

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