Shouting at people who are unvaccinated only makes things worse, says Jess Berentson-Shaw. Try these strategies instead

A few months back I was chatting to a colleague in Australia, with whom I was doing some vaccination communication work, about the problem that could arise in our public conversation as more and more people got vaccinated. We discussed that as more people got vaccinated the group of people with hesitations would begin to look larger, and it would cause alarm (and unhelpful communication). 

When 100 percent of us were unvaccinated, knowing 20 percent of people had hesitations was potentially less concerning than when 40 percent of people are unvaccinated and 50 percent of those have hesitations. Same numbers, different framing of the scale of the issue.

The risks we knew were that people were not yet vaccinated for varying reasons, including having unanswered concerns, lack of access, low trust, and yes, denialism, would become subject to vitriol and anger. 

With that vitriol the narrative about vaccination could swing towards one that would undermine what the evidence says is needed to ensure that most of this quite diverse group of people had the opportunity to move over the vaccination line.

Unfortunately, some of those speaking in the media and online in their day to day conversations, perhaps not understanding the science of vaccination communication (proving again expertise is not generalisable) are indeed easing us towards this narrative. We need to reject it if we want to get the vaccination rate up. Here are some ideas on how.

1 / Understand not all unvaccinated people are active deniers

Vaccination acceptance is on a continuum, however the group of people who are strongly opposed to vaccination and unlikely to move is small (though noisy and deeply unpleasant at times on social media). People with concerns and hesitations, people who are not there yet, have different things going on, including fear, lack of access, experiences of injustice, over exposure to false information, not enough exposure to well framed vaccination information, health concerns and more. 

We should remember that, because nothing creates a “f*** you” attitude more than being labelled and treated as something you feel you are not. And into the arms of the vaccine deniers they go: people who tell much better stories and provide places where people’s concerns do get listened to.

Wanting to be angry with people who actively deny vaccination and spread false information with ill intent is understandable when so much is at stake. Being angry at people who have hesitations that are driven from multiple complex issues is much less helpful. 

2 / Focus on those who are really responsible

Research does suggest that we can use this anger more constructively by naming the strategies, techniques and motivations of that group of people who start and feed anti vaccination sentiment for personal gain.

This is known as pre-bunking. It works best before people are exposed to false information – our kids are the perfect people to be using these strategies with.

3 / Respect Māori response to structural racism 

Rates of vaccination are lowest at the moment among Māori. Being excluded from health, scientific, and educational institutions, and being harmed by structural racism, creates mistrust in those institutions and the people who represent them – who then call you stupid for not believing them. 

Fertile ground for the people spreading false information about vaccinations. When you call people dicks or stupid for not being vaccinated, ask are you just blaming people for a well documented response to structural racism? Are you the racist here?

4 / Work a bit harder to avoid creating a climate of hatred and exclusion

Interestingly, while many people talk about getting vaccinated to protect those who cannot get vaccinated (including those who are immune compromised, or have severe reactions, or other contraindications to the vaccination), those who fall into this camp may find themselves on the end of the metaphorical pitchfork. 

A culture of intolerance and anger against unvaccinated people is not a nuanced one, and vitriol against unvaccinated people (even if it is for active deniers) is not precisely implemented, it spreads. 

Such an approach serves the desires of the above vaccine deniers to have a climate of division, them and us. It serves social media companies nicely too, as the algorithm thrives on alarm and anger. Step back. Talk face to face. Watch Ted Lasso, do the garden.

5 / Use the evidence about how to increase vaccinations

I have noted that many of those who are aficionados of science engage in non-evidence based ideas when it comes to trying to increase vaccination rates. 

Shouting the facts at people is an understandable strategy when you believe those facts and you are angry that others don’t, and you are scared about the impact of false information. 

It’s not effective though. Ironically, the facts tell us that. Try ideas from “How to talk about vaccination” instead.

6 / Employers – mandate as a last not first response

Mandating vaccinations in industries that have care and responsibility for more vulnerable people is different from mandating in industries in order to open up the economy. Notably, the values driving those decisions are different. 

Mandating too soon risks workers and especially those who are hesitant feeling they are simply economic units who must get back to work for their employers and that the vaccination itself is not an intrinsic enough reward. 

Mandates should always be the last resort after employers have done everything they can to support their people to get vaccinated, including getting them to vaccination clinics, giving them time off and creating a positive culture for vaccination information. 

Here is some evidence based guidance for employers wanting to do all the things. Support for the Government is key to some of these strategies.

Getting through this pandemic was always going to be a slog, but staying together through it will see us through to the other side with experiences we can take to our other challenges (climate change and health impact of that, for example). 

It’s rough going now I know, and we can focus our energy and attention where it is most effective to help those we can over the vaccination line. 

Learning how to live with the hard liners, while keeping their ideas out, is going to be important for all sorts of challenges. We have a way to go.

Leave a comment