All public messaging efforts need to be focused only on the fears or concerns of the vaccine hesitant, writes Peter Dunne

In a recently released book American General Stanley McChrystal, famous as the head of the mission that captured Saddam Hussein after the invasion of Iraq, has written that the biggest threat posed to America today is neither military nor the pandemic.

Instead, he argues the biggest threat America currently faces is that of “disinformation”, or as he calls it, “the ability to pollute our consciousness”. According to McChrystal, the hidden threat of deception is not just that people will believe the wrong thing, but that they will start to think the wrong way.

For an America still recovering from the onslaught of “fake news” during the Trump years, McChrystal’s words will have special relevance. But they are also relevant to the current situation in New Zealand as the campaign to get more people vaccinated against Covid-19 intensifies, and where the “fake news” about the impact and consequences of the vaccine are becoming more extreme.

In recent days, for example, there has been the instance of a former high-profile media personality claiming that the earthquake which disrupted the Prime Minister’s announcement last week of the proposed “traffic light” system was in fact “Mother Nature’s” protest about the vaccination programme.

Then there were also false claims spread through social media by “anti vaxxers” that the recent sudden death of New Zealand rapper Todd Williams, a strong advocate for vaccination, was caused by his being vaccinated, when, as his grieving family have been forced to point out, it was actually because of a heart attack caused by a long-standing but previously undiagnosed heart condition.

While these two examples are at the more extreme end of the vaccine “fake news” spectrum, there is little doubt that lower-level false rumour and speculation about the vaccine is a significant factor affecting the thinking of those yet to be vaccinated and causing them to either delay the process or have second thoughts altogether.

And with the Government now making it clear that the lifting of the alert level restrictions we are all enduring currently is dependent on reaching a minimum 90 percent double vaccination rate across all district health boards, the pressure on those currently not vaccinated to get vaccinated is intensifying.

This in turn is creating a new and frankly unhelpful community intolerance of those yet to be vaccinated. Unfortunately, the government’s increasingly stentorian, though undoubtedly well-intended, messaging about the new two-tier world that awaits the vaccinated and the unvaccinated is not helping. While probably not intended to do so, it is creating a fresh division in a society, already facing divisions brought on by Covid-19. And when legendary music icon, and vaccination proponent, Sir Dave Dobbyn is pilloried on social media for pointing out that the virus, not each other, is our common enemy, McChrystal’s warning about disinformation polluting our consciousness starts to feel uncomfortably close to what is happening here.

Let us be very clear – any dispassionate examination of the medical and scientific evidence currently available leads to the conclusion that the wisest, safest, and best way we can protect ourselves, our families, and our communities from the risks Covid-19 and its variants pose is through vaccination. Of course, there are those, who for moral, ethical, or other reasons have an objection to vaccination, whether it be against Covid-19 or anything else, and their views will never change. But while they have a right to their views, they are not the focus of the community’s current attention.

There are many more genuinely vaccine-hesitant people to be focusing on. These are likely to be people who have simply not got around to being vaccinated yet, for any manner of reasons. They might be frightened of needles, or wary of medical interventions generally, but not averse to being persuaded to overcome their fears and get vaccinated if they come to see it as being in their interests to do so.

This is the group most vulnerable to the misinformation currently being spread in some quarters. Right-wing neo-conservative groups and some fundamentalist churches have been prominent in this campaign, as recent events in Auckland have shown. The general hold these groups have on their adherents is also being applied in this instance as further evidence of their broader claim that “the Government” is taking away basic rights and freedoms. Unfortunately, as is typical of their behaviour, these groups’ campaigns have far more to do with promoting their own interests, than about the wellbeing of their supporters.

What is required to counter this pernicious nonsense is substantial, solid, non-sensational information about the vaccination process – what it entails and how the vaccine works, and the very low level of risk to individual health and wellbeing it poses, and how that can be mitigated. But, instead, the official messaging at present is focused much more on vaccination being a virtual pre-condition of re-entry into normal society. While the vast, now vaccinated majority would consider such an approach as not unreasonable, we need to remember that we are no longer the target.

Those yet be vaccinated have to become the sole target of public information campaigns and public messaging from now on. In that sense, the rest of us who have heeded the message no longer matter nor need further persuasion. Yet, official messaging which focuses on only the vaccinated being able to fully enjoy a normal life in the future merely fires up the obsessions of the neo-conservatives and fundamentalists that their freedoms and rights are being threatened. In turn, they can use that to play on their followers’ fears not to get vaccinated. At the same time, with the Government’s focus on high vaccination rates, it is easy to see how the resentment of the vaccinated about being held to ransom by the unvaccinated is developing.

We have known for some time that vaccination rates amongst Māori and Pasifika are lagging the general population, and we also know which district health boards are still falling behind the targeted levels. They are the groups we now need to be focusing on.

Wherever possible, we need to be using relevant and respected community leaders to get the message across, not relying on continued broad-brush community messaging about vaccination and dark threats about how grim life will be for the unvaccinated. That approach has had its day. Instead, we now ought to be concentrating entirely on the unvaccinated and addressing their professed concerns directly – however invalid they may appear to reasonable people (but we are no longer the target, remember). And those actions should be supported by on the ground activity, such as door-to-door visits, in known low vaccination areas.

The “disinformation” McChrystal refers to is spread usually by a combination of fear and lack of knowledge. The more authorities dismiss those fears as irrational or unjustified, without either trying to disprove them, or offer reasonable explanations, the more they risk entrenching those fears, and then the harder they will be to overcome. Scoffing at the vaccine-hesitant or threatening new constraints on their freedoms will not achieve their compliance and will more likely aggravate wider community impatience.

In this next stage of the pandemic recovery programme, the Government’s overriding focus needs to shift to curbing disinformation and fear amongst the unvaccinated, to encourage them to make a better-informed decision about what they should do. That way, all of us will gain a better chance of being able to enjoy a near-normal Christmas period.

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