A combination of openness, a creative communications campaign, appeal to civic duty, and engagement on an emotional level will secure trust in the Covid vaccine.
It will take a massive injection of trust to ensure a Covid-19 vaccine is accepted by the millions affected globally. As governments around the world scramble to protect residents from the effects of the pandemic, they are simultaneously having to confront and try to unwind the distrust many feel in a potential remedy.
Even before the pandemic, the World Health Organization listed vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to global health. There’s an uphill struggle to persuade millions of doubters – in France one in three think they are unsafe (second only to Liberia). With global polls suggesting up to 40% of people will not ‘definitely’ take a Covid vaccine, this is a problem, as herd immunity would not be achieved, and we wouldn’t see the back of the disease and its effects with such low take up.
For the UK’s Johnson administration, this lack of faith is compounded by a succession of what might generously be called execution missteps: PPE, Barnard Castle, track and trace, public exams, the PowerPoint fails. The public is perhaps right to be wary, at best, of the prospect of a safe vaccine before Christmas.
What can governments do to bridge the confidence gap? We need a cocktail of solutions and there are several paths governments could take to bring the public back on side. “These are unprecedented times, and these are unprecedented clinical trials…This can’t be business as usual,” says Jason Schwartz, assistant professor of public health at Yale School of Public Health, writing in the BMJ. A combination of openness, a creative communications campaign, appeal to civic duty, and engagement on an emotional level will secure trust.
One route to the successful uptake might be more of the ‘experts’: transparency of methods and results, where the scientific community can early review and scrutinise the work but also to build public understanding and confidence. Releasing more detailed documents and materials quickly and at all stages of the process would help the public to both understand the design of trials and ultimately understand how to interpret the results from them.
A creative information campaign, such as the one over the last decade in France to quell vaccination scepticism resulting from the cases of narcolepsy that occurred after children received the 2009 H1N1 flu vaccine would be beneficial. French health bodies have used social media platforms and funded videos like ‘Nine bullshits on vaccines’, engaging directly in online discussions. The WHO’s “Let’s Flatten the Infodemic Curve” attempts to myth-bust misinformation on multiple media platforms, notably Facebook.
Others have floated fanciful ideas of high profile figures – even The Queen – who should be the first to receive a vaccine to show the jab is safe. Unfortunately, many celebrities from Lewis Hamilton to Madonna have revealed vaccine scepticism and their potential lack of credibility in understanding the nuances of epistemology. Woody Harrelson, John Cusack and others have peddled the 5G myth. As attractive as a Boris and Beyonce combo is, perhaps it is better for pop stars to stick to what they know best.
Could governments appeal to people’s sense of civic responsibility and rekindle that community spirit, which was effective at the beginning of the pandemic, but which has been somewhat absent recently? Privileges for those with a vaccine certificate may be a strong incentive – for eating out and leisure activities, or for overseas travel, for instance. Or could there be a financial incentive offered, or even make benefits contingent on receiving it?
Immunization stops up to 3 million deaths every year from diseases and on the surface everyone, even the doubters, probably know that that a vaccine is the only solution to move past this pandemic. Ever since the age of enlightenment people have known science is the way forward. But with any new medicine there’s a return to the dark ages evoking irrational age-old fears. Actually pricking one’s body with an injection of a foreign substance evokes a primaeval human response.
Hard hitting public health campaigns against tobacco and AIDS have used that fear with effect to jolt the public into action. Governments need to tap into what the advertising industry has known for decades that emotions affect buying behaviour and that people need to identify with the perceived danger, rather than being bombarded with stats – they need to internalise a scenario where it could happen to them, rather than to ‘other people’.
All of these solutions are necessary, but the only real cut through will be to tap in to that emotional anxiety and reminding the public of the deaths already occurred and the nasty, life threatening consequences of not being vaccinated.