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Mixed messaging during a pandemic: what’s the impact?

Last Updated May 12, 2021 at 8:01 pm MDT

CALGARY (CityNews) — A new report from the World Health Organization says governments and organizations around the world have mismanaged the COVID-19 pandemic, while wavering faith in certain brands of vaccines shows how important trust is when trying to get the right message out during a pandemic.

“When it comes to scientific proclamations, I’m fond of saying there should be a sign on the door saying ‘all of this is true until further notice,'” said Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist at the Univerity of Ottawa.

First, masks were ineffective. Then very effective.

Hearing “get the first shot you’re offered” – then being told of rare blood clots, and stopping a shot that’s already been given to thousands of Canadians.

The seemingly mixed messages coming from scientists, politicians, and the WHO since the pandemic began, eroding public confidence in those with decision making power.

READ MORE: U.K. study says expect more reactions from mixing Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines

“Despite clear warnings, far too many countries believed it would not affect them and they adopted a wait and see approach,” said Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the co-chair for The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response.

The report from the World Health Organization points to a “toxic cocktail” response from the organization itself, and governments around the world.

“This is an ongoing disaster that we believe could have been prevented,” said Sirleaf. “The evidence shows that an outbreak became a pandemic because of failures, gaps, and delays in preparedness and response. This was partly due to a failure to learn from the past.”

The mixed messaging continued this week when Ontario stopped offering AstraZeneca for first doses – and at the same time, federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh dismissed any concerns about the rare blood clot side effect.

“Vaccination acceptance rates have gone up slightly or are a little more stable,” said Timothy Caulfield, the Canada Research Chair on Health, Law and Policy at the University of Alberta.

Although – that does seem to depend on the brand.

READ MORE: Canada’s health minister tries to ease concerns over AstraZeneca vaccine

A poll from Proof Strategies suggests Canadians are “vaccine shopping” with trust levels much higher for vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer, at around 80 per cent – and dipping below 50 per cent for AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.

In the meantime, experts say the entire world is learning the institutions they have been told to trust for decades, like the WHO, are imperfect. And that might end up being a good thing – because something like this will happen again.

“We have an opportunity here, a window of opportunity, to build a smarter society, to deal with these crisis’ in a smarter, better, faster more efficient way,” said Deonandan. “Now let’s see if we can do that.”