Why we must keep talking to the unvaccinated

A sign in the NYC subway. Making vaccines free, easy to access, and providing incentives really helps entice some to get vaccinated, but most of the hesitant need to have their fears addressed first.

A few days ago, I had coffee with an old family friend. Before long, we got talking about the vaccine. She hasn’t had it and said she is scared to get it. I knew I had to try to persuade her to get protected, so I gave it everything I have. This is what happened.

I started by listening closely. I wanted to understand why she was hesitating. I was astonished to hear that she was frightened she would die from the vaccine. Suffering from a pre-existing heart condition, she was worried — despite her doctor’s reassurance — that the vaccine might exacerbate it and land her in the hospital again.

She admitted that her doctor told her that her condition didn’t pose any concern for getting vaccinated. He also said it was COVID-19 that could make her at risk of getting gravely ill. To further reassure her, he sent her for an allergy test to rule out any adverse reactions. But a small thing he said unsettled her — he cautioned that should she decide for the vaccine, she must be careful not to exert herself too much shortly after getting her shot. That bit of precautionary advice, for her, was enough to justify her fears and refuse the vaccine.

I struggled to understand. It didn’t seem logical. Essentially, my friend was worried about getting sick from the vaccine but not from the virus. At the same time, she wasn’t scared of the virus itself or the increased danger COVID-19 poses to those like her with underlying illnesses. I wondered what else was going on.

Digging deeper, it was clear that misinformation had played a role somewhere along the line. My friend’s comments were colored with some of the crazy conspiracies circulating online. The messages she saw played down COVID-19 dangers, and made up vaccine side effects. These came not just from her social media feed, but also from her suspicious refugee community and family members who don’t trust the system.

These influences had warped my friend’s risk perception, and her ability to think logically. She didn’t believe she was going to get COVID, and at the same time, she didn’t believe it would be that bad if she did get it. The messages she was hearing about the dangers of the vaccine had convinced her that getting jabbed was the bigger risk to her health. These voices were simply louder.

Having listened without expressing judgment and acknowledging her concerns with compassion, I began to talk. I started with the obvious, attempting to address her hesitancy. All risks considered, getting vaccinated is the best thing you can do for your health, I offered. COVID kills, I said, and pointed out how quickly the highly contagious Delta variant is spreading especially among the unvaccinated. I urged her to protect herself before it was too late and offered to send her resources if she still had questions.

I tried different angles. She had told me she missed going to cafés and worried about being shunned when going into the office. I said that getting vaccinated would not just protect her, but give her back her freedom to participate fully in society again, to go about her life more or less unhindered. I think she heard me out, as I had her.

I don’t know whether I changed my friend’s mind. But I do know that she felt respected and acknowledged and that our conversation isn’t over. I’ll continue to listen and talk to her, as well as others I care about and try to persuade them to get protected. It can be exasperating, but I know I can’t stay silent. How could I live with myself if they got sick?

Our initiative Verified has helped develop a guide to making these conversations more effective. This vaccination “chatbot” is also a terrific exercise based on the principles of motivational learning.

The main recommendation is to take the time to understand the individual in front of you, their fears, and their perspective before trying to address their concerns with patience and compassion.

We’re still at war with the virus. The vaccine is still our most powerful weapon. Yet as the debate about vaccination grows more polarized, and anger builds on both sides, these conversations with the hesitant are increasingly at the front line in our battle against COVID-19. We can’t just leave it to others to fight. We have to actively engage to win this war of persuasion.

If speaking to the vaccine hesitant seems hopeless, it isn’t. Many people will listen to the right source. You might be just the influencer that can swing a friend or family member in favor of a vaccine. Different approaches will work for different people depending on their concerns and exposure to misinformation. Sometimes it’s as simple as saying clearly: ‘You are at risk, I am worried about you, please protect yourself.’

Here in the U.S., with the DELTA variant swelling emergency rooms again, the vast majority of the sick and dying are unvaccinated. There are so many stories now of ill patients begging for a vaccine at the doors of the ICU when it is too late. Loved ones of the unvaccinated deceased are now becoming advocates for the vaccine. The media is helpfully getting these stories out.

We all know someone who is still hesitating. It might be difficult, but we can’t afford to give up on them, throw our hands up in frustration, and retreat. It’s down to all of us to strengthen, rather than weaken, these friendships. Now is the time to reach out. Have the conversation, then have it a second time. It could save a life.

Chief Communicator #UnitedNations promoting a peaceful, sustainable, just & humane world. Author: A Hope More Powerful than the Sea. Podcast: Awake at Night.