Is COVID-19 still a pandemic? Is it over? Should we call it something else?
In his latest article, Dr. Peter Sandman delves into the ongoing narrative of the COVID-19 pandemic, providing a critical lens through which communicators can navigate the complex landscape of public perception and complacency. As we stand at the crossroads of public health messaging and societal fatigue, Sandman’s insights offer a valuable framework for understanding the significance of persistent, effective communication in the face of evolving risks. By juxtaposing the World Health Organization’s warnings with the diminishing concern in the media and public discourse, he underscores the challenge of conveying the continued threats posed by COVID-19 amidst widespread desire to move on. This analysis is not just about the pandemic’s current state but serves as a case study for communicators on the intricacies of messaging in situations where public sentiment diverges from scientific reality.
On December 31, 2023, the World Health Organization’s Maria Van Kerkhove, PhD, MS, tweeted that COVID-19 is “still a pandemic.” Her long thread went on to detail the paradox of COVID’s continued threat to health, the variety of ways to reduce the risk, and the high level of public complacency.
She is surely right about the complacency. As far as the U.S. media and general public are concerned, the COVID pandemic is over. Anyone who argues to the contrary is shrugged off as a doomsayer (if not a shill for Big Pharma).
It’s been that way for a while. President Joe Biden said the pandemic was over in September 2022. A March 2023 WebMD headline read: “It’s (Finally) Time to Stop Calling It a Pandemic: Experts.” By June 2023, 64% of Americans had reached the same conclusion, according to a Gallup Poll.
Now, in January 2024, news articles about COVID are much less common – and the few remaining articles, if they use the word “pandemic” at all, mostly do so in the past tense. Even articles urging people to take COVID precautions seldom resort to the “p” word. Just because the pandemic is over, they seem to be saying, that’s no reason to throw caution to the wind.
An ever-growing majority of Americans desperately want to throw caution to the wind. To justify doing so, they are deeply committed to insisting that the pandemic is over.
This gets things exactly backwards. If we’re lucky, the pandemic is not over. Here’s why.
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Dr. Peter Sandman is a distinguished voice in risk communications, with his extensive body of work focusing on bridging the gap between expert assessments and public understanding. His expertise offers invaluable lessons for communicators across fields, emphasizing the need for nuanced, empathetic and engaging strategies to address complex issues in an ever-changing information landscape.