Kindness may be our most powerful and underutilized tool in this pandemic — soon to be “multidemic.”
I recently had the opportunity to have multiple conversations with people who did not want to get vaccinated. I know the science. But my endgame was not to teach them science. My endgame was (as is my work) to save lives. The approach I took was kindness, empathy, curiosity, and respect — which, granted, can be challenging when the stakes are high and the landscape contentious. The rewards, however, are powerful; kindness is freely at our disposal and can be used as soon as right now.
As a founder and CEO of a health company focused on curbing infectious disease, I’ve seen the power that authentic kindness and respect can have on saving lives. Unless we change the way we speak to one another, individually and collectively, it’s going to be a long fall and winter with fear and confusion fueling misinformation, resulting in even more loss of life and livelihoods. The multidemic may not be avoidable; the confusion and misinformation it engenders are.
A multidemic occurs when numerous epidemics occur simultaneously. Last year, by social distancing, wearing masks, and washing our hands, flu infection rates decreased from 20% to 2.3%, and we curbed the spread of many other non-COVID infectious diseases. This is not projected to be the case this fall and winter with symptoms associated with colds, flu, and COVID, and influenza-like illnesses (ILI) already exceeding baseline levels in 0- to 9-year-olds (which is the age group most associated with spreading contagious illness — and if you have a kid, you easily understand why).
So far, 16 states have surpassed baseline ILI illness levels with another 8 nearing baseline levels — and that was before most kids were back in school. RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) is also on an upward trend, particularly in southern states — and it’s a virus that can be especially severe in the young and elderly and is typically not seen in the summer. If you could see the future…you are looking at it.
We’ve all seen how quickly people turn away from jargon, judgment, and condescension. It’s a wall, not a bridge. By acknowledging fear, worries, and concerns and then asking for permission before offering a differing viewpoint, a dialogue can be fostered. Employing this approach, I found that people were more willing to take the precautions that we know work in protecting individuals and communities against the spread of COVID and the other infectious diseases that are barreling down the pike in our direction.
This early data on the overall incidence of flu in the population indicates a likely infection rate this season similar to that of the 2017–2018 season — which was the worst flu season on recent record. Add COVID and its variants to the mix and you have a threat that could, once again, overwhelm our hospitals and health care system — something that we’re already (unimaginably) seeing in locales where ICU beds are filled with COVID patients. Yet more pile in, spilling into the general bed population and leaving little room for those with other infections — which the data shows are coming. This is what a health care system on the brink of collapse looks like, and this is when schools will be forced to close (again) — delivering another lethal blow to people’s lives, educations, and economies.
Compounding the threat is the fact that COVID-19 and its Delta variant manifest in vaccinated people as cold- and flu-like symptoms. When hospitals fill with COVID patients, people avoid going to the doctor — something we saw last year — which will result in untreated cases and increased transmission. With the confusion around symptoms, misinformation will increase (a rise we’re already seeing.) The World Health Organization counts vaccine misinformation as one of the top ten threats to global health (calling it an infodemic) and emphasizes that the way to debunk misinformation is a variety of tools including “being nice and authentic.” Underscore “nice,” please.
To be clear, this does not take away from what we know still works: vaccination (for both COVID and the flu), social distancing, wearing a mask, washing hands, and at a systemic level, adequate PPE for our healthcare workers. Additionally, we need to employ apolitical strategies that provide early warning of an impending outbreak. The technology already exists but is being underutilized (and underfunded). Just as Zoom went from being a barely used platform to a pandemic lifeline synonymous with getting work done and staying connected, the same should happen to the existing technologies that capture mildly symptomatic individuals early in their illness and provide them with what they need to know to contain transmission.
Regardless, we cannot tap the power of science and technology if we can’t communicate effectively. Let’s remember that we have more in common with each other than we don’t. Nobody wants schools to close. Every parent wants to take care of their kids and their community. Regardless of differing beliefs, studies show that when a parent can understand a child’s illness in the context of real-time community health trends, they are likely to go to the doctor earlier when their child develops flu- or strep-like symptoms and are 40% more likely to get a prescription for antivirals within 48 hours when necessary. This is the power of effective public health communication.
But we don’t have to wait for top-down changes to effect change in our very own communities (and hearts). It begins with us. You and me. To this end, I am having conversations with people on either side of the debate. I invite you to do the same. Reach out to a family member, friend, or neighbor and practice curiosity. Practice openness. Practice compassion. It’s not always easy (that’s why it’s a practice), but it’s worth it because this won’t be the last difficult crisis we face. The silver lining is that we can use it to practice the tools we all possess to build unity for a safer and healthier community, country, and world.
Let’s kill this multidemic with all the tools at our disposal. Let’s kill it with kindness.