At 6.45 in the morning of last Monday (New York time, almost one in the afternoon in Europe), the pharmaceutical company Pfizer released a press release on the progress of its vaccine against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, of which plans to produce 50 million doses before the year is out. “Today is a great day for science and humanity”, celebrated its president. His words were replicated by media outlets around the world, with pre-Christmas headlines like ‘The miracle vaccine’. But is so much euphoria justified?
The social psychologist and expert in crisis communication Ingeborg Porcar asks the media for reflection and considers that this type of message violates two basic rules of communication: not affirming what is not known and not making promises that it is not known if they can be kept. “This has already happened many times and generates false expectations -assures the director of the Unitat de Crisi de Barcelona-. The next day the news was already being lowered and in a context in which people are very sensitive and vulnerable, you have to be much more careful and communicate only certainties. The rest only generates emotional ups and downs and undermines confidence of citizens in crisis managers. People are getting more and more confused“.
“In a context where people are very sensitive, you have to be more careful and communicate only certainties”
Social psychologist and expert in crisis communication
In addition, excess optimism could lead citizens to relax prevention measures: “That there will be a vaccine does not mean that we can remove our masks -warns Porcar-. They have sold us, and we have believed it, that the day there is a vaccine everything will be solved, as if it were a fairy with a magic wand. The situation is very tough and people are holding onto a burning nail. “
In fact, the second part of the statement from Pfizer and the German BioNTech already warned that the nature of the investigation “involves substantial risks and uncertainties that could cause the actual results to differ from those expressed in the statement.” An example of the gulf between forecasts and reality is that in 2010 Spain had to destroy six million doses of the vaccine against influenza A that cost 40 million euros.
“Journalism, in general, has made follow-up of the pharmaceutical without asking any more questions, ”Carles Pont, professor at the Faculty of Communication at Pompeu Fabra University, states emphatically. We have believed the news very quickly because we are in a phase of rationalization of the crisis in which we have assumed that this will go on for a long time. from time to time we need a certain dose of optimism. This leads to easily mistake desire for reality“.
A few hours after the announcement of the multinational pharmaceutical company, the Minister of Health, Salvador Illa, announced that at the beginning of 2021 some 10 million people could receive the vaccine in Spain. Facing the month of May, the majority of the population would be immunized, he predicted. Further, World experts pointed out that everything would return to normal in spring.
Carles Pont places the announcement more in the economic field than in the health sector – hence the reaction to the rise in the markets -, but hunger for good news alone does not explain euphoria unleashed. “The media and opinion leaders have contributed in a very important part to generating this climate of opinion, but it has also helped the legitimacy of the pharmaceutical, which is not just anyone, and the perception that it is a success of western science “, considers.
“We live in a very future-oriented society, we make many plans and it is difficult to enjoy the present”
Professor of Journalism at UPF
Soon after, Russia announced that its Sputnik V vaccine is 92% effective versus 90% effective for Pfizer and BioNTech. One more sample of the relationship between mass vaccination campaigns and international politics.
“Human beings need to have a horizon from time to time – concludes Pont -. We live in a society very oriented towards the future, we make many plans and it is difficult for us to enjoy the present. The uncertainty has dismantled all our forecasts and the vaccine has become the new horizon. But we have a long way to go, this euphoria will cool and we will probably be very disappointed“.