Opinionista Brendon Bosworth 7 January 2021

We need communication grounded in empathy and facts to counter Covid vaccine resistance

The South African government plans to vaccinate 10% of the population against Covid-19 by April 2021, with ambitions of vaccinating nearly 70% of the country by the end of the year. That goal will be tough to achieve if people are not willing to receive the jab.

Myths circulating about vaccines include that they alter your DNA and can make you infertile. Understandably, these have freaked people out. Just over half the South Africans who responded to a recent poll by global market research firm Ipsos said they would take the needle when the vaccine arrives.

To help bring the pandemic under control, government, public health experts, civil society, community organisers and ordinary citizens who support vaccination efforts need to engage in empathetic, fact-based communication with those who are hesitant about vaccines. The vaccine will save lives. At this time, communication is critical.  

Lead with empathy and dialogue

As challenging as it might be, communicating about the benefits of vaccination with those who are hesitant requires an empathetic approach. This means listening to people’s concerns, focusing on what they are saying, and trying to understand where they are coming from. 

Not providing the space to listen is detrimental. Vaccine sceptics tend to harden their views when they feel like they are being shut down and are unable to express their concerns, notes Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project. 

Conversations need to happen as level-headed dialogues. “Instead of treating the conversation as a corrective lecture, treat the other person as an equal partner in the discussion,” advises communication researcher Emma Frances Bloomfield in an article about talking with someone who is misinformed about the coronavirus. 

Calling someone a #covididiot and then berating them about everything they are wrong about is alienating and unlikely to change any opinions.  

Those communicating about the benefits of vaccination should also show how they care about the same things that people who are wary of the jab do. Someone might be hesitant to get the needle but care deeply for the wellbeing of their family members and neighbours. Most of us care about our family and community. This can spark a point of connection and open the door for a constructive conversation about how vaccines can help safeguard the people we love. 

Know the science

All sorts of wild claims have been flying around about Covid vaccines. The false claim that they can change your DNA sounds frightening. Often, the people making these claims have heard about them on social media, or from a friend, and don’t have an understanding of how vaccines actually work.  

To adequately debunk such myths requires a basic but well-rounded understanding of the science behind vaccines. A fact-based discussion about what vaccines do, and don’t do, can help dispel these myths. Again, this needs to come from a place of care so that the conversation feels like an equal exchange.

One doesn’t have to hold a PhD in vaccinology, but it’s important to be clued up on the fundamentals of vaccines and to be able to provide credible, accessible and understandable resources. CNN, for example, has an explainer on the various available vaccines. Closer to home, the C19 People’s Coalition has a helpful infographic on the Covid-19 vaccine. 

It’s also important to be honest. People are concerned about vaccine side-effects (43% of those in the Ipsos survey said they wouldn’t take the vaccine because they were worried about side-effects). While side-effects like allergic reactions are rare, they have occurred. This needs to be communicated with the low levels of risk properly explained.

South Africa will need more explainers, vaccine educational material and easily understandable information about the particular vaccines that will be used here. These need to be available in different languages and take the varying levels of public scientific literacy into account. Government, civil society and the media need to be proactive about sharing this information across relevant communication channels to ensure it reaches people throughout the nation. 

Hope for a weary country

In the midst of adjusted lockdown Level 3 and with another challenging year on the horizon, South Africa’s vaccine ambitions provide hope for a weary country, even though the government has been criticised for lagging behind global efforts. 

To ensure that we reach the target of a 67% vaccinated population, it is essential that government, civil society, public health experts and anyone who cares about science as a public good communicate about the value, safety and efficacy of vaccines in a way that does not further alienate those who harbour doubts.

To get buy-in on vaccines in an anxious, fragmented society, we need information that is factual, understandable and, importantly, delivered from a place that recognises our common human connection and shared desire for a safer world. DM


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  • Government communication has been woefully inadequate. It seems this will continue, relying on partners to communicate without listening. Who has researched the fears? anxieties? and daily issues of our communities? Communication is not about throwing messages at people but carefully listening and then developing a multifaceted campaign to enable people to take more control over their lives. Changing behaviour is not about knowledge but about a complex interaction of norms, experience and supportive environments. We continue to make the same mistakes, trying to sell safer behaviour when what we really need is empowerment!


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