We The Peoples
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We The Peoples

How to talk to the vaccine hesitant

Most people are counting down the days until they get vaccinated, but not everyone. In these unsettling times, it’s understandable that some people need a little more reassurance, a little more information, before they feel confident in saying yes to a jab.

Less understandable to me is that vocal minority who are seeking to undermine and derail the global vaccine roll-out. Hard to believe, right? That a few people out there are deliberately spreading lies designed to scare people out of accepting a potentially life-saving vaccine? But there it is.

The bottom line is we communicators are locked in a bitter struggle. Those convinced vaccines are our best and only way out of the pandemic are pitted against a handful of die-hard anti-vaxxers, competing in a race to win over those who, for whatever reason, are just not sure.

Be in no doubt, this is a matter of life and death. As Heidi Larson, head of the Vaccine Confidence Project, a UN Verified Initiative partner, puts it: “If we do not start building vaccine literacy and restoring public trust in science today, we cannot hope to contain this pandemic … Vaccines only work if people take them.”

Communicators urgently need to get proactive in spreading the science. But there’s more to persuading people about the benefits of vaccines than bombarding them with facts or dismissing fears off-hand. It turns out there is a right way, and a wrong way, to talk to the vaccine hesitant.

Our initiative Verified has helped develop a guide to making these conversations more effective. One of the biggest takeaways is to take the time to understand the individual in front of you, their personal desires, needs, and fears, before trying to address their concerns.

If we first walk in a person’s shoes, we can appreciate their unique world view and come closer to understanding what drives their choices. In the case of vaccines, that could be anything from their religious beliefs and social identity to their individual risk perception or general trust in institutions.

We aren’t in any way seeking to change deep-seated beliefs. But by grasping what is most important to someone, we can connect their values with humanity’s wider goal: an end to the pandemic. This allows us to present the vaccination campaign for what it is. A win-win for the common good.

Once we’ve understood what makes someone tick, we can begin to address individual concerns. For many, hesitancy about the COVID vaccines is based on the speed of their development. This is particularly true of the new mRNA vaccines, about which all kinds of myths are circulating online.

When we simply say these lies aren’t true, we kind of miss the point. Psychologists say people turn to conspiracies to reassert their personal control over scary crises. We should address this core need and give people back control.

We can empower people with reliable, accurate information, so that they can make their own informed choices about the vaccine. That is near impossible when people must wade through the internet to get to the facts. Many are simply overwhelmed.

Sometimes, putting a mind at ease can be as simple as explaining what a vaccine is and how it works. Others will be reassured by a list of vaccine ingredients, or a chat about potential side effects and what to expect.

As always, it matters who the messenger is. Normally, many would go to their personal doctor for trusted advice. But we’re trying to vaccinate the whole world at high speed, a feat rarely attempted before. Health professionals are tied up, so we must recruit others to spread the news.

Ideal advocates vary between communities, so it pays to recruit many voices to the cause. One thing is clear: We can’t just delete the lies and stay silent. That only creates a void for mistrust to grow. COVID is still spreading. Communication that helps, not hurts, is needed more urgently than ever.

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Melissa Fleming

Chief Communicator #UnitedNations promoting a peaceful, sustainable, just & humane world. Author: A Hope More Powerful than the Sea. Podcast: Awake at Night.