Winston Anderson | Wanted – an effective communication strategy to address vaccine hesitancy
There are many theories about how the world will end, but until recently none of them involved mass phobia. The widespread hesitancy, indeed, sometimes open hostility, to vaccination against the COVID-19 virus challenges the traditional models on human extinction. Without an effective communication strategy that convinces large swathes of the world’s population to overcome their resistance to taking the vaccines, the pandemic may yet threaten an extinction-level event.
EXTINCTION LEVEL EVENT
Many people of faith believe that the world will end in a fiery apocalypse when God destroys the Earth with fire and brimstone. This comes close to the modern suggestion that the impact from a large enough random asteroid could call time for the Earth, as a city-size asteroid did for the dinosaurs 66 million years ago (See Deep Impact (1998) with Morgan Freeman). Most scientists theorise that the end of the world will be caused by deoxygenation in one billion years; or of lack of energy caused by the death of our stars in 2 to 3 billion years. Most recently the possibility that a virus could take us out has been memorialised in films such as Contagion (2011) with Laurence Fishburne and I am Legend (2012) with Will Smith.
None of these theories contemplated that, in the view of some, mass paranoia could be the real cause of our undoing. From December 2019, when the COVID-19 pandemic first broke, many clamoured for a vaccine against the virus. The medical research community responded. By December 2020, the World Health Organization had approved the Comirnaty COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use. Since then, seven vaccines have been similarly approved: Moderna; Pfizer; Johnson & Johnson; AstraZeneca; Covishield; Sinopharm; and Sinovac. But the uptake by the citizens of the world has been less than stellar.
The scientists say that at least 75 per cent of the population needs to be vaccinated (or, to a lesser extent, have become immune from having been infected) to greatly lessen the chances of the virus surviving through mutation. They say that achieving herd immunity is the ticket to humanity’s surviving the virus. But herd immunity does not work when people of the same anti-vaccination beliefs live in the same neighbourhood, go to the same places of entertainment, or attend the same religious services. Where the percentage of vaccinated individuals in a population drops below the herd immunity threshold, the contagious disease can spread very quickly throughout the community and mutate. The new variations could eventually put even vaccinated persons at risk.
In our part of the world the numbers for achieving herd immunity are dismal. PAHO has warned that only one in four people in Latin America and the Caribbean has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. When we drill down into the numbers, the picture for the Caribbean is gloomy. According to CARPHA, no CARICOM country has yet achieved 50 per cent vaccination. The range is from 47 per cent (St Kitts and Nevis) to 17 per cent (Jamaica). Haiti hardly makes a showing on the chart, at about one-third of one per cent (0.35 per cent). Moreover, these CARICOM numbers are misleading because they include persons who are fully vaccinated as well as those only partially vaccinated.
If the raw numbers are not sobering enough, the actual stories of unnecessary deaths, devastation of families, and overrun of public health facilities are nothing less than gut-wrenching. The is a story of a neighbour who lost her 49-year-old son who had rejected the available vaccines, preferring to wait on the ‘single jab’ Johnson & Johnson. A groundsman at a premier university who would rather be sent home than take the vaccine, thereby depriving his two children of tuition-free education at that institution. A hospital system overrun and broken because of the influx of unvaccinated COVID-19 patients. These stories are multiplied many times over in our countries. And the inevitable economic dislocation has already caused some of our governments to default on their sovereign debts.
REASONS FOR VACCINE HESITANCY
Let us be clear. There may be sound medical reasons for not being vaccinated. But over 90 per cent of the time, the reasons proffered for not taking the jab have nothing to do with medicine. They range from (1) I’m afraid of needles; to taking the vaccine (2) will cause me to grow a tail; (3) will allow my movements to be tracked; (4) is the biblical mark of the beast; (5) will cause mass deaths in two years.
Then there are the assertions that (6) the vaccines were developed ‘too quick’ and (7) ‘we don’t know what’s in it’. My aunt and many others of the Windrush generation who went to England after the war in the 1950s took ships on which the voyage lasted over three weeks. Surely, we would not now refuse the eight-hour jet ride because it is ‘too quick’? We do not know what is in other vaccines we have taken. Or even the foods that we eat. And would we be content if the scientists were to tell us the scientific names of the ingredients in the COVID-19 vaccines?
Another point of clarity relating to the law is worth making. Holding and propagating one’s reasons for not taking the vaccine could well be legally protected. There is a constitutional right to freedom of belief as well as to freedom of speech; these rights imply a right to share one’s beliefs with others. The matter of whether there could be any limitation in the public interest has not yet engaged the courts.
And while we are on legal entitlements. There is a view that Government can mandate the taking of COVID-19 vaccines as a condition for continued employment with the State. There have also been suggestions that private-sector entities could make vaccination a condition of doing business with them. These are important legal issues which may ultimately need to be settled by the courts. Whatever the outcome of that litigation, one thing is self-evident. The State cannot press charges against every person hesitant or hostile to taking the vaccine. There are simply not enough law-enforcement personnel nor space in the prisons. Here, then, is a perfect opportunity to use the freedom of speech to share and to persuade. To ‘reason’, as it was put in the days when I was a schoolboy.
The head of one of our prime ministers has already been opened over COVID-19 hesitancy and hostility. An effective communication strategy is needed to open the eyes of Caribbean people to the clear and present danger of the coronavirus and to what we can all do to combat that danger. How we reason our way to that end, and what that strategy could look like, is what I discuss, next time.
Justice Winston Anderson is the third most senior judge on the CCJ; chairman of the CCJ Academy for Law; and former professor of law at The University of the West Indies. This commentary is not intended as an advisory opinion or a commitment to a particular legal position in any court proceedings. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.