A researcher works on a vaccine against the new coronavirus COVID-19 at the Copenhagen's University research lab in Copenhagen, Denmark, on March 23, 2020. (Photo by Thibault Savary / AFP)
Artillery Row

All that glitters is not gold

Why the “Decade of Health” campaign has left the UK feeling cold

“Sinister” was probably not the mood the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was aiming for when it produced the “Decade of Health” television spot. I’ve never felt moved to write about a TV spot before, but this really caught my attention. It was… odd. And Twitter thought so too. The film is the star of the “Decade of Health” campaign launched on 16 October, which promotes a vision of the future in which the UK works with the rest of the world to become “healthier, stronger and safer”.

These are bold aspirations for a decade beginning with 44,000 British deaths with or from Covid-19

The film first appeared on Channel 4 this week. It starts in the present, with 2020 described as “The Year We All Stood Still”, with mutterings about “R number”, “further lockdowns”, “hospitals facing increasing pressures”. You get the drift. Luckily, that part only takes 8 seconds, because I think we’ve all had enough of that 2020, before there’s a vaccine breakthrough. Optimistic music heralds 2021 and people remove their masks. (Fingers crossed!) The red ribbon is cut on 2022 with a flourish, signalling really good stuff is going to happen and, yes, the 2020 marathon finally takes place. Mirroring the weird segue currently pushed by the WHO, United Nations, UK government and the NHS between Covid-19 and climate change, the air quality is better and asthma cases go down. Grander claims are made for 2024 and beyond: innovative malaria treatments reduce cases by 50% and babies are cured of blindness. By 2029 nanotechnology kills cancer cells.

These are bold aspirations for a decade which has begun with 44,000 British people who have died with or from Covid-19; 26,000 non-Covid deaths at home above the five year average; 25 million lost GP appointments and, to take just one health impact, an additional 35,000 cancer deaths predicted as a result of lockdown. It’s predicted that 200,000 people will die in the UK as a result of lockdown.

On Twitter, there was glowing praise for the film from people involved with the campaign, as well as two other people, who said it was “an inspiring way to start your week” and “I love the #decadeofhealth ads. They fill me with hope”. Otherwise the feedback was not as shiny as the film. Example tweets:

“Creepy and disturbing”

“Indoctrination advert”

“Is it just me or does the #DecadeOfHealth advert on TV look like something out of a dystopian sci-fi film?”

“Just seen the advertisement for #decadeofhealth. I’m sorry, but the state we’re all in right now it’s not ten years’ time I’m interested in, let’s focus on the next month or year. #enoughliveslost #walkbeforerunning#gettingaheadofthemselves?”

The film is also on YouTube, where comments were disabled. Given the Twitter reaction, this was probably a wise decision.

Conspiracy theories abound in 2020 and Bill Gates and his foundation are at the epicentre. The advertisement seems to have tapped into these fears and provoked responses which reference “the Great Reset” (although, to be fair, that’s a genuine World Economic Forum campaign) and “depopulation”. Maybe poor Bill Gates can’t do anything right, and any ad with his name on it will bring out the conspiracy theorists. Or maybe the timing was off.

The “Decade of Health” has not begun well. It’s laudable to try and leverage people from fear towards hope, but at present the country is still enduring varying degrees of lockdown and social restrictions. Many are worried about an epidemic in mental health problems, the UK’s GDP plummets and unemployment soars. Is it too early for us to buy into this optimistic vision of the future?

And how will we afford it? Scientific research attracts the noblesse oblige of billionaire philanthropists as well as scientific institutions and governments, but how are the outcomes to be delivered to the population? Especially, a post-lockdown impoverished population facing austerity.

This ad is about the UK’s health, but the government is nowhere to be seen. Strikingly, neither is the NHS. Perhaps that’s a clever move. The interface between politics and science has been uneasy this year. Increasingly, we sense tension and the acceleration of a blame game between politicians and scientists. But in the UK our health is delivered by the NHS, and the media team tell me they were not involved with the campaign.

After several viewings I still wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be buying. Hope? Confidence in a vaccine? The film finishes with the statement that “people across the UK are working to make this future of health a reality.” The UK is a global leader in science and innovation and a campaign which promotes that is to be applauded. Ten UK researchers who are making great strides in their respective fields are given the spotlight.

One of them is Dr Ross White, Researcher in Clinical Psychology at the University of Liverpool, and an expert in global mental health. He told me he was “pleased to be asked to feature in the campaign” because it shows “the important role the UK can play in resolving global health challenges.”

We are not a nation ready to buy more vague promises

He didn’t want to comment on the film as he was not involved with it but said the campaign “heralds new funding opportunities for academics in the UK, it’s about facilitating the research, which can then inform service delivery further downstream.” I asked him how far downstream these futuristic health outcomes might be? Could they really be here, delivered by the NHS, within the decade? He said: “Every generation faces unique challenges. If we are in a position to facilitate innovative research, then this could indeed be a very important decade for public health.”

The “Decade of Health” campaign has virtuous aims: promote the UK as a centre for excellent and innovative research and inspire hope. The UK scientists are impressive and leading powerful work.

So, why has this TV spot left people cold? Why did it feel like “sinister” health propaganda? For all its glittering promises, it doesn’t speak to where we are now. We need to get through this winter. We need to put society and the economy centre stage and not slide into a deep recession which will harm public health in the long term. We are not a nation ready to buy more vague promises. We know that all that glitters is not gold.

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