Guest Articles

March 18

Steve Schmida

Preventing Coronavirus in an Age of Distrust: The Importance of Cross-Sector Collaboration

As the coronavirus outbreak has evolved from isolated epidemic to a globe-spanning pandemic, public health institutions such as the CDC, WHO and others are playing an essential role in containing the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, trust in large institutions—public and private—is at an all-time low in many countries. To take just one example, a 2019 report by the Aspen Institute highlights how events over the last two decades have conspired to erode the American public’s trust in the federal government, the media and corporate America.

This lack of trust is a major impediment to preventing the spread of the virus. Trust is essential to prevention. Citizens need to believe that government agencies are doing their best to act in the best interest of the country when making policy decisions, such as banning travel or large gatherings. What’s more, citizens need to be able to trust that the news they get from social media platforms is accurate, so they do not disregard legitimate news and information on how the virus spreads.

Put simply, if we expect people to heed advice aimed at fighting the pandemic, citizens need to believe they are receiving accurate information about coronavirus and how to prevent its spread. Here there is an opportunity for government institutions to partner with both private enterprises and non-profit organizations to promote efforts to contain coronavirus. Specifically, there are three ways governments can work together with companies and NGOs to achieve that goal.


Driving Behavior Change

The most important aspect of preventing the spread of the virus is getting people to change their behaviors: washing their hands more often, avoiding certain types of close-proximity social interactions, etc. Consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies and NGOs can play a key role in driving behavior change through social marketing campaigns. CPG companies possess enormous marketing expertise, and budgets that can be leveraged to reach audiences with key messages about how to prevent the spread of the virus. Here, the Global Handwashing Partnership could serve as a useful blueprint: A long-standing collaboration between governments, companies and NGOs – including Unilever, Proctor and Gamble, UNICEF, FHI360, and the World Bank – the partnership demonstrates how governments can leverage private sector marketing savvy (and funding) to drive key messages. This partnership has helped reach millions of poor households across Africa and Asia, highlighting the importance of proper handwashing for better health. For the CPG companies, the partnership is a great way to drive new soap (and other hygiene product) sales, and acquire new customers in these markets. For the governments and NGOs, it enables them to tap into the enormous marketing muscle of the CPG companies to drive their public health message.

In the case of coronavirus, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control could partner with CPG companies and NGOs to develop a similar behavior change campaign across the country, to increase the frequency of handwashing and other basic hygiene tasks that help fight the spread of the virus. For the CPG companies, the campaign would help increase sales of items such as soap, detergent, sanitizer and wipes. It would enable the government and NGOs to leverage the world’s best marketing talent to drive home key messages about preventing the spread of the virus.


Fostering Community-Level Trust and Engagement

As we have seen over the last several weeks, preventing the spread of coronavirus requires not just the actions of government agencies, it relies heavily on local actors to do the on-the-ground work in communities across the country. But unfortunately, the lack of trust in large institutions means many communities may likely respond negatively to a heavy federal government or corporate presence, complicating the work these local actors are doing on their behalf.

To address this issue, federal agencies and large companies can partner with community- and faith-based organizations to catalyze prevention efforts on the ground. Churches, synagogues and mosques, as well as civic groups such as Rotary, Lions and local chambers of commerce can all serve as powerful partners to engage communities in prevention efforts. These organizations can access hard-to-reach constituencies, especially communities of color and other marginalized groups, more effectively than government agencies. For example, a study by the Urban Institute found that, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, disaster victims perceived the assistance provided by community and faith-based groups to be more effective than that provided by federal, state and local government agencies. In the case of coronavirus, community and faith-based organizations could play a similar role, serving as conduits for information and channels for distributing materials.


Reducing Disinformation

According to the Pew Charitable Trust, over half of U.S. adults get news from social media often or sometimes. Unfortunately, the same survey showed that the public no longer trusts large technology and social media companies – and about half of respondents say that one-sided and inaccurate news are very big problems with news disseminated on social media. These companies are viewed with deep suspicion across the political spectrum, as a result of gratuitous violations of privacy and tacit enabling of foreign interference in U.S. elections.

To overcome these obstacles, public health NGOs and institutions should partner with leading tech companies, specifically Google/YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, to flag misleading or conspiratorial posts that spread disinformation. For example, the Red Cross and Centers for Disease Control could provide public health workers or volunteers to review postings on coronavirus and identify those that are spreading disinformation. Once flagged, the tech companies would then be responsible for tagging the posts as disinformation. Further, social media platforms should then exclude these posts from their algorithms, eliminating the automatic sharing of this content with other users. This would discourage disinformation posts from going viral, without infringing on the free speech of these platforms’ users. By engaging NGOs and government in this process, social media companies can demonstrate a commitment to transparency and accountability on their platforms.

Turning the tide on the coronavirus will not be easy in the highly charged and polarized period we are living in. With trust at such low levels, containing and reversing the spread of the virus is not something large institutions, public or private, can solve on their own. Governments and companies need to reach out and engage non-profits and community groups in the fight. By forging partnerships across sectors—public, private and non-profit—we can build the trust needed to combat the spread of the virus in our communities and neighborhoods, across America and around the world.


Steve Schmida is the founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Resonance.


Photo courtesy of congerdesign.




Coronavirus, Health Care
behavioral economics, COVID-19, infectious diseases, NGOs, partnerships, public health, public-private partnerships