Fear and shame won’t convince the vaccine hesitant to get their shot

Government mandates will only take us so far, in the end it will fall to the vaccinated to persuade the skeptical among us


We all know them – friends or family members who refuse to get vaccinated. 

Many of them are now changing their minds as vaccine mandates require proof of vaccination to get into restaurants, sporting events and, in some cases, keep their job. Some 82 per cent of eligible Canadians report being fully vaccinated.

But a significant number continue to refuse to get jabbed, even as we see more horrifying pleas filtering into the mainstream from former COVID patients in hospital ICUs imploring people to get their shots. The safety and efficacy of vaccines remain a concern for a lot of people despite the fact that side effects are rare and the vaccine has proven remarkably successful in blunting a fourth wave that last month seemed ready to overwhelm our defences. 

The science is clear, even as the virus itself is evolving. More than 90 per cent of new COVID-19 cases in Ontario are among people who have not been vaccinated. 

But for many who are vaccine-hesitant, science is not enough. Facts don’t matter because they generally don’t trust science or government to begin with. And therein lies the dilemma.

We’re not talking here about the conspiracy theorists among them who think the earth is flat. Or the self-styled “freedom” fighters who consider themselves anti-establishment and feel empowered by their resistance. Those individuals will never be convinced.

But there are also people who work in the very sectors (health care and hospitality) most adversely affected by the virus who have concerns about the side effects of being vaccinated. Many among them are women and people of colour who don’t have access to paid sick days and can’t afford time off work. Which is to say they’re not all selfish and misinformed like most of the folks showing up at Chris Sky rallies with Star of David billboards à la pre-Second World War Europe and Make America Great Again baseball caps. 

This latter small-but-vocal minority has muddied the waters for those sitting on the fence with a campaign of misinformation and a selective reading of the facts.

Those facts tell us that the chances of contracting the virus are much lower if you’re fully vaccinated. The risks are lower still if you restrict your contacts to others who are also fully vaccinated and abide by masking and physical distancing protocols in public. According to the latest data, unvaccinated Canadians are 36 times more likely to be hospitalized for the virus than their vaccinated counterparts. 

It’s also true that the Delta variant can sometimes elude protection afforded by the vaccine. And that side effects pose a risk to some. No vaccine is foolproof.

But in instances where there have been serious side effects, other factors have been involved like pre-existing health issues such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer or diabetes.

The bottom line is that the vaccine is the best protection against serious illness, hospitalization, intubation and death. The vaccine trains your body to recognize a threat from the virus and fight it off before it overtakes your immune system.

So how to convince those who are stuck in the middle? Vaccine mandates are one way.

When the Ontario government announced it would be introducing vaccine passports, vaccination rates shot up. Ditto in BC. Alberta offered $100 a pop for the hesitant to get their shot.

But the mandates have also had the effect of further politicizing the issue, hardening the position of those who refuse and getting the backs up of people (yes, even stigmatizing them) who have legitimate reservations. See Quebec.

In the U.S., vaccine mandates have further inflamed political opposition to vaccination. This week, the Texas governor moved to overturn vaccine mandates in the state. 

That scenario seems unlikely here, where acceptance of vaccines is more widespread. But hundreds of businesses in Ontario have signalled their intention not to enforce vaccine passport mandates. 

That slope could become slipperier as COVID cases rise and anecdotal evidence suggests that even those who have been persuaded to get fully vaccinated may be reluctant to get a booster, which looks like will be needed to get us over the current wave.

Fear and shaming won’t work. Targeting government messaging in vaccine-hesitant communities will help build trust in the science.

But government mandates alone will only take us so far without risking a further backlash. In the end, it will fall to those among us who are vaccinated to help persuade those who remain skeptical. Our safety depends on it.

@enzodimatteo

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