What will it take to win over the unvaccinated?
Well, here we go again. If you’d told me a few months back I’d be spending Thanksgiving under another strict lockdown, I wouldn’t have believed it. But here I am, in Austria, at the end of a work trip to Europe, facing another holiday stuck indoors. I thought we were past this. It’s necessary, but deeply frustrating.
Now I’m digesting news of a fresh variant circulating in southern Africa, and arriving in Europe and Asia with carrier travelers. It isn’t clear yet and won’t be for several weeks how the existing vaccines and treatments stand up to this new threat. It is possible more of us will have to return to social distancing to save lives.
Lockdown is always a drastic step, and Austria didn’t take it lightly. Here, the highly transmissible Delta variant is ripping through the unvaccinated, of whom there are just too many. In Austria, just 65% of people are double vaxxed. Across the whole of Europe, the average is just under 60%.
European countries have tried various approaches to boost that number, from vaccination drives to strict entry requirements for restaurants and leisure activities. But so far, not even the threat of another lockdown has moved the vaccine holdouts. So just what will it take to win them round?
One thing is clear, the debate is growing more toxic. People are losing patience with each other. The prospect of more lost time in lockdowns makes the vaccinated resent the unvaccinated. The unvaccinated resent the authorities for pressuring them. Society is split, and the gulf is widening.
Mounting death rates are adding to the frustration. Though the World Health Organization (WHO) doesn’t recommend it, Austria will make vaccination compulsory from February. By then, it will be too late for many. The WHO is warning COVID could kill another 700,000 Europeans by March.
Tragically, these deaths will be largely preventable. Vaccines save lives. They protect against severe disease, long COVID and intubation. And they protect others. The vaccinated are less likely to get COVID, or pass it on. Yet it seems many haven’t taken that message to heart.
Confusion is rife. For one, many are understandably disappointed that the vaccines aren’t magic bullets against the pandemic. Though less likely, vaccinated people can still get the virus, they can still pass it on. That means all of us must keep taking precautions to protect ourselves and others.
Some sceptics use this to question vaccines, downplaying the fact that they save lives while minimizing the risk of getting sick with COVID. Others spread false information about vaccine safety. For others, tired of lockdowns, or opposed to vaccine mandates, the response is political.
Common to many vaccine holdouts is a lack of trust in authority. Suspicion provides fertile ground for hard-core conspiracists, many of whom have gravitated towards the pandemic precisely because it is so polarizing, to spread theories that the virus has been fabricated as a hoax to erode freedoms.
Confusion and conspiracies spread faster when there is a lack of reliable information. Many people, vaccinated or not, are scared and are looking for clarity. There is widespread worry about the future, about the disease, about the safety of loved ones. Many of us long to return to a happier time.
Our only hope is to pull together. Vaccines are a key tool in ending the pandemic. Yet combined vaccine hesitancy and inequity is giving the virus an easy ride and the chance to mutate. Rich countries are awash with doses, with too few willing to take them, while tens of millions worldwide are yet to receive a single dose.
I wish I had more answers. But I know we must communicate better to navigate our way out of this grinding vaccine dilemma. We must think and talk strategically to boost vaccination rates. We must advocate at the same time for vaccine equity for the rest of the world. It may be too late to save many. But let’s never give up. Let’s keep reaching out. Let’s try to win them round.