Covid-19 vaccines are fast approaching, but a second pandemic might impede efforts to recover from the first, according to the president of a global humanitarian aid group.
That second pandemic: "fake news" about those very vaccines.
Francesco Rocca, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said in a virtual briefing to the UN Correspondents Association on Monday that governments and institutions needed to implement measures to combat growing mistrust and misinformation.
"To beat Covid-19, we also need to defeat the parallel pandemic of mistrust that has consistently hindered our collective response to this disease, and that could undermine our shared ability to vaccinate against it," he said.
The leader of the world's largest humanitarian aid network said his organization shares "the sense of relief and optimism" that developments in Covid-19 vaccines bring. But governments and institutions "have to build trust in the communities" where misinformation has taken root, he added.
There is growing hesitancy about vaccines around the world, particularly the Covid-19 vaccine, said Rocca. He cited a study by Johns Hopkins University in 67 countries, which found that vaccine acceptance had declined significantly between July and October of this year.
Distrust is also growing around other health measures
At the same time, distrust is growing around other public health interventions that must continue during the pandemic. "This high level of mistrust has been evident since the very beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and have clearly facilitated transmission of the virus at all levels," he said.
The most obvious example, he added, was how many people in the Western world were unwilling to wear face masks. Still, he said, distrust and misinformation is a global issue.
"This is not just an issue of mistrust. It is an issue of information," Rocca said. "Surprising as it may seem, there are still communities around the world that are not aware of the pandemic."
Such communities are typically vulnerable and marginalized, living outside the reach of typical communication channels, he said. He gave the example of Pakistan, citing a federation survey that found 10% of respondents didn't know about Covid-19.
"We believe that the massive coordinated effort that will be needed to roll out the Covid vaccine in an equitable manner, needs to be paralleled by equally massive efforts to proactively build and protect trust," Rocca said.
Rocca's comments echoed the words of scientists across the world.
Last month, British scientists warned that the United Kingdom may not meet the threshold of vaccine uptake to protect the community because of misinformation, mistrust and public hesitancy to take a coronavirus vaccine.