Is the West ready for the second wave of the coronavirus?

Europe's World

Citizens' Europe

Picture of Chris Kremidas Courtney
Chris Kremidas Courtney

Senior analyst for Strategy International, faculty member for the Stratcom Hybrid MA program at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, affiliated with the United States European Command (EUCOM)

Imagine if after months of non-stop work by hundreds of scientists around the world to develop and test a vaccine for coronavirus, much of the world rejects it due to disinformation, thus prolonging the impact of the virus?

Or suppose once a new vaccine for the virus starts to be produced and distributed, nations of the West engage in ruthless competition with each other to obtain it first? And in the process, Russian and Chinese disinformation efforts exacerbate this competition, helping to produce deep and long-lasting divisions within both the EU and NATO, perhaps even endangering their continued viability?

What will ‘vaccine diplomacy’ look like once one is developed and how could it be used by a malign actor to further divide the West and delay our economic recovery?

These are among the possible scenarios to consider as nations and international organisations prepare for a possible second wave of the coronavirus due to arrive in the autumn.

The ability to work toward a global accord on vaccine development, production, and distribution is not only necessary, it is vital

The coronavirus pandemic has ended the post-9/11 era and ushered in a new world we are just beginning to understand. This new era is being driven by a new set of economic and security priorities, and we have little time available to learn and apply the lessons from the first wave of the virus if we hope to keep the international order intact during and after the second wave.

Globalisation is already being redefined and will continue to be so. The bidding wars over medical equipment at the outset of the pandemic will seem mild by comparison if competition ensues over a limited supply of a future coronavirus vaccine, providing new opportunities for malign actors to exploit any emerging divisions between nations, organisations, and their people.

To address these potential risks, nations and organisations should seek to reaffirm and strengthen the international system which was purpose-built for exactly these types of situations. The ability to work toward a global accord on vaccine development, production, and distribution is not only necessary, it is vital.

We’ve also seen in recent years how disinformation on the measles vaccine led to Europe and the US experiencing a 20 year high in measles cases. The main reason, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), was “vaccine hesitancy” which was listed among the WHO’s top 10 global health threats in 2019.

A pandemic presents an even bigger challenge since it presents the perfect storm for disinformation

While the causes of vaccine hesitancy are multifaceted, a major factor is the influence of news and social media which also serve as a dissemination platform for malign actors to spread disinformation about vaccines.

As reported in the 2019 study “Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate”, the same bots and trolls linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency which spread discord in the 2016 US elections also fed disinformation and contributed to the measles crisis in Europe. And according to the European External Action Service (EEAS) Strategic Communications Division, those same disinformation sources are currently active in promoting conspiracy theories about the coronavirus and any potential vaccines.

The difference in 2020 is that it is not just Russian sources but also Chinese platforms engaging in the disinformation campaign – and both are being supported by proxies in the West. Their audiences have been primed over many months of disinformation, so when a viable vaccine arrives, we should expect the volume and vitriol to rise significantly. Once some people are convinced to avoid a vaccine, it can very difficult to dissuade them, regardless of how many facts are presented.

Western nations and institutions have learned much about how to counter disinformation in recent years. But a pandemic presents an even bigger challenge since it presents the perfect storm for disinformation – a situation in which the public’s fear and anxiety is already amplified and people are searching for answers. As science tells us, this makes it much easier for a disinformation campaign to tap into the innate human tendency to reject ambiguity in such situations and seek ‘cognitive closure’ through simple answers which ‘feel true.

These delays in recovery could create a new patchwork of winners and losers

When we place these dynamics in the middle of the second wave of a pandemic and the emergence of a vaccine, we can see how disinformation can promote increased vaccine hesitancy – prolonging the pandemic and increasing the harmful impact on our societies, economies, and governing structures. These delays in recovery could create a new patchwork of winners and losers as the global economic order is reshaped by how well we can cooperate and recover.

Thus, it is imperative for governments, health officials, and international organisations to get ahead of the second wave and counter this disinformation with comprehensive information campaigns to educate the public and promote interventions by local doctors with their patients. For it was exactly these doctor-patient connections that proved to be very effective in countering vaccine hesitancy in the past.

If we hesitate and wait until the second wave of the pandemic to more effectively counter the ‘infodemic’ – we may regret it.


Please note this article is written in a personal capacity and is not intended to reflect the official position of the United States European Command (EUCOM).

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