Steve Barrett on PR: Let’s make America healthy again

If 2021 is to be a better year than 2020, federal, state and local government and other institutions need to step up and do a lot better.

A year everyone is desperate to forget and move on from as quickly as possible was bookended by the death of two PR legends and PRWeek Hall of Famers.

PRWeek’s most influential PR person of the 20th century, the great Harold Burson, passed away in January at 98. And, on Tuesday, New York PR pioneer Howard Rubenstein died aged 88.

As well as typifying a year that piled misery on top of misery, it also feels like an ending of an era represented by other pioneers who have already left us, including Al Golin and Dan Edelman.

The one remaining iconic individual from PRWeek’s “Forefathers of PR” article that celebrated our 10th anniversary in 2008 is David Finn, who has not been in great health in recent times but who turns 100 this year.

The PR baton has been well and truly passed on to the following generations and their skills will be required more than ever in the next 12 months.

The coronavirus crisis is at its apex, despite the good news about vaccines being made available in record time. But just as the U.S. failed to roll out PPE, isolation, mass testing and track and tracing effectively in the early part of the pandemic, the rollout of vaccines has also made a stuttering start.

There is even the possibility that some valuable vaccines will have to be discarded because the powers-that-be haven’t been able to get them into circulation before they expire. New York magazine dubbed the efforts so far: “America’s vaccine rollout is already a disaster.”

It really beggars belief that the most advanced and powerful country in the world can’t effectively organize what should be manageable procurement and distribution exercises.

The deficit lies in a mixture of arrogance, bull-headedness, lack of leadership and effective communication and the inability of different agencies and government departments to work together for the common good.

There have been so many examples of people going beyond the call of duty to combat COVID-19, not least the scientists who worked 24-7 to expedite the vaccines in record time.

But the contrasting sight of revelers celebrating the onset of a new year in places that responded far more efficiently to the coronavirus, such as New Zealand, with deserted traditional New Year's Eve celebratory hotspots such as Times Square, was stark.

Total deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. have hit 346,000, infections now stand at 20 million - 3,460 people died yesterday alone. It’s easy to become immune to these numbers, but they are staggering in their scale.

Total deaths long since exceeded the tally from the Vietnam War (58,220) and WWI (116,516) and, at current rates, will exceed the 407,317 people who died in WWII before the first month of 2021 is out.

There are other significant challenges facing the new Biden/Harris administration when it assumes control later this month.

Despite the baffling strength of the financial markets, we are firmly in the middle of a brutal recession, which is going to hit harder in the harsh winter months of January and February as many businesses that have been hanging on grimly face up to the reality of another year of lockdown and austerity.

U.S. national debt hit a staggering $27.5 trillion in November 2020. Even in February 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic hit, debt had spiraled to $23.4 trillion. That number is unsustainable and is going to have serious implications moving forward.

In truth, billionaires have had an excellent pandemic. It is the poorest sections of society that are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis, across all aspects.

The one phrase I kept hearing over the past few days was “good riddance to 2020, surely 2021 cannot be as bad a year as that.” But, unfortunately, there’s a danger that could turn into meaningless rhetoric and wishful thinking if the many and various challenges ahead are not approached properly.

PRWeek’s Health Influencer of 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci – who, incidentally, like Howard Rubenstein originally hailed from the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn – said Wednesday that if the U.S. is able to “diligently vaccinate” people in 2021, the nation could return to normal life by early fall.

He conceded that the COVID-19 vaccine rollout is off to a slower start than expected, but said if the US is able to “catch up” in 2021, widespread vaccination could be possible beginning in April.

Let’s sincerely hope the wheels of bureaucracy start turning faster and Fauci’s predictions come true. Nothing can restart and rebuilding can’t truly begin until we get this horrible pandemic under control.

Business must step up and play a leading role in mending our country, bringing its organizational and entrepreneurial skills to the table. Effective communication will be crucial in achieving this.

We simply must make America healthy again.

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