As we’re now vaccinating younger people (hello!) I thought I’d give you some advice about how to convince people to get their vaccine. The vast majority of people are getting their vaccines (where available) but we can always encourage more.
Note: I mention needles but don’t give any detail and there are no pictures.
A lot of this will also be true about other things to do with health too, like different contraception methods, HIV drugs, and even condoms. This article is aimed at you, the curious, do-good, activist reader, who wants to convince more people to get a vaccine. You know, some of the things you might be trying may do more harm than good right?
To tackle diseases, governments should look after their citizens by providing healthcare services, good pay, sick pay and generous welfare.* Then we play our part by getting vaccinated, having safer sex, taking time off work or school, getting treatment, recovering, sneezing into tissues, washing hands and, lately, wearing masks. These things all help to protect ourselves but they also protect other people around us.
One of the main ways that we are dealing with Covid-19 is through vaccinating people. Vaccines help stop individuals from getting ill. If enough people get a vaccine then this coronavirus won’t be able to spread as far because fewer people can get it and pass it on.
“When a lot of people in a community are vaccinated the pathogen has a hard time circulating because most of the people it encounters are immune. So the more that others are vaccinated, the less likely people who are unable to be protected by vaccines are at risk of even being exposed to the harmful pathogens. This is called herd immunity.”
Why it’s important that lots of people get it
This herd immunity means that we need lots of people who can get vaccinated to get vaccinated because then it also protects the whole community. Some people can’t get vaccinated because of other health reasons, or because they are kids. And some people don’t want to get vaccinated for other reasons.
So this means that there is a lot of pressure on people to get vaccinated. You might be thinking that this is a good thing. Vaccines are good, they are good for all of us, so we should pressure everyone to get one shouldn’t we? Well, no, we shouldn’t.
This ‘common sense’ idea might actually be doing more harm than good. If you are yelling at people on social media about it, or getting into long arguments about it, or even if you are giving people tons of information, you might actually be preventing people getting their vaccine. How?
*Some governments do these things better than others. Many countries and regions are just not able to do these things because of the history of colonisation and capitalism which has extracted wealth and power from the global south.
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There are a lot of reasons for why some people might be hesitant about getting a vaccine. The decisions that we make about our health are a combination of:
- the information we have,
- our ability to do something,
- the feelings about it, and
- our core values and beliefs.
Each of these things interact with each other. So it can be a complex mess of reasons for why some people do or don’t get vaccinated. It’s really key to understand this if you are going to try to convince people to get vaccinated.
You also need to be really empathetic if you are going to try and convince someone to get their vaccines. For example, it’s really really understandable why a lot of black and south Asian people might be a bit cautious about healthcare generally when you know a bit more about the history of racism in public healthcare.
Also a lot of people might not have had great experiences with healthcare in the past. It can be very traumatising for some people to go to a doctor or a healthcare practitioner. Some people (like me) might also be needle phobic (I still got mine, I was brave).
So just shouting at everyone to ‘get your vaccine’ is not helpful because everyone is different. Some of us are going to be more able to feel like we can get vaccinated than others. It’s a spectrum. If you yell at people it doesn’t actually change their view, it has the opposite effect. These are known as backfire effects.
What should you do?
If you do want to communicate with others about vaccines here are some tips for what you should do. The overall thing to remember is not to lock horns or butt up against people, but to try to work with people. It’s about trying to talk with people rather than at people. Remember that our decisions are based on information, what we can do, our feelings, and our values.
Be careful in your use of facts
Don’t bombard people with facts about covid vaccines because they get overwhelmed and stop listening or taking the points on board. If you want to give information about something to people just make it about a couple of things and move on.
Also be really careful about myth busting. Think of a myth as just being a really popular story. The more it gets repeated the more people will remember it – this also happens if you are trying to debunk it. So state the fact, introduce the myth, debunk the myth, and state the fact again. Don’t repeat the myth again.
Talk about values
Our values and beliefs can be really strong but can also be interpreted differently. So for example, if you are trying to convince someone who is doing that ‘being a man’ thing. They might believe that being a man is about being strong so they might think ‘I don’t need a vaccine to beat coronavirus’. Obviously they would be wrong, but that won’t convince them. If you say ‘some really strong men have got seriously ill from it’ they would just say, ‘well yeah I’m stronger’.
So instead you have to find a way for them to think of their beliefs and values differently. In this case I would say ‘I hear that, and there is no doubt that you are tough. But being a man is also about looking after others and that’s what this vaccine is all about’. They still get to believe what they believe about being a man, but they get to do it in a way that is beneficial and kind. Win win.
The social aspect
It’s a very bad idea to single out a community and say that they are bad for being hesitant about getting a vaccine. They just double down on their beliefs and decisions and make it even harder for them to change their minds. Even worse, they might start to try to make more people believe what they do because they are in a fight against you.
Instead it’s better to show that people are wanting to get vaccines. When vaccines are offered it’s nearly always the majority of the population that step forward and get the vaccine. In the UK the numbers of people getting vaccinated so far have been really high. Don’t talk up vaccine hesitancy as being a bigger deal than it is.
So it’s just better for people to show their vaccination cards, or their cute stickers, or (if they were lucky) a badge. It’s better to say what is happening rather than point to what isn’t happening. In this way it changes people’s minds because people don’t want to feel like they are missing out.
This might be a good time to make it okay for people to talk about a fear of needles and what they can do to overcome it. What I did was to practice some breathing exercises. Letting my belly expand as I breathe in, and noticing it contract when I breathe out. It kept me calm and helped me not to think about stuff. I also just told the staff beforehand and they were really great. They don’t want you to pretend that you aren’t needle phobic. The last thing they want is for someone to pass out on them. So tell them this so that they can help you.
It’s also just good to reflect on your emotions and to encourage others to do the same. It’s okay to feel scared about a vaccine and making others feel okay about feeling scared is the best thing to do. We feel more okay about being scared if we can also say ‘look it’s easy to get a vaccine’, or ‘I feel scared but I also feel proud of protecting the people I love’.
Doing this kind of work can’t happen instantly. You’ve got to allow for people to make their minds up and to do a lot of this work for themselves.
What works is to give people agency. It’s all about working with people, assuming the best in them, and being as consensual towards them as possible. Don’t just yell at people.
Here’s an academic article that I found useful in writing this.
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© Justin Hancock, 2022
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health.