“Democratic” solutions to vaccine hesitancy

BAR NONE - Atty. Ian Vincent Manticajon - The Freeman

The decision of the national government to no longer require individuals who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to get an RT-PCR test if they travel to other local government units is a welcome move in the fight against vaccine hesitancy.

Malacañang said the presentation of a COVID-19 domestic vaccination card is a sufficient alternative to any testing requirement, before travel or upon arrival, which the local government unit of destination may require.

This adds to the other incentives which encourage people to get vaccinated, such as discounts and freebies in restaurants and shops. The Department of Health has partnered with private businesses last month to come up with Ingat Angat, a website which lists various restaurants and other establishments which offer rewards to vaccinated individuals. I checked the website yesterday but it was down.

This does not bode well for the prospects of online campaign to counter vaccine hesitancy. Government as well as healthcare providers must learn to maximize the use of online communication and improve their overall social media presence. That is the most effective way to reach out to more people and counter the disinformation prevalent in social media.

Proper and effective strategic communication, as well providing incentives, are however, just two of several other approaches in dealing with vaccine hesitancy. One study suggests that a more ‘localized’ public education and role-modelling from public officials and health authorities can help a lot in building public trust.

According to Vergara, Sarmiento & Lagman (2021) in their study “Building Public Trust: A Response to COVID-19 Hesitancy Predicament,” public health experts and government officials can no longer rely on their expertise and authority alone in convincing people to trust them on the matter of vaccination. Public health authorities must learn to localize information through education and modelling system that pre-figures sincerity.

Barangay captains and other respectable members of the community, for example, must be tapped to communicate to people in their neighborhood about the benefits of vaccination, as well as to address fears about its reported side-effects. They must lend themselves as early adopters who were vaccinated first and have become role models to make COVID-19 vaccination a new norm. It is also good that religious leaders like our priests and bishops have spoken up in favor of vaccination.

On the other hand, dangling the threat of penalties against those who refuse to be vaccinated may be tempting at this particular time of crisis. I share in the view that such an “undemocratic” method may produce quick results but it could be harmful in the long run. Depriving people of their freedom of choice only fosters discontent. The result is that people could just find ways of dodging the rules.

Herd immunity through vaccination is so far the only realistic goal in dealing with COVID-19 in the long term. Intermittent lockdowns, and likewise stringent border restrictions, come with an unacceptably high economic price.

Taiwan and Vietnam are two countries which relied on strict border and quarantine control measures but took their sweet time on vaccination. That worked for over 18 months but then these countries experienced ‘prevention fatigue’ which drove the surge of COVID-19 cases there last May. Now they are scrambling for more vaccine supplies.

Contrast that to the United States which saw massive death numbers last year. Today, the US has been able to resume normal life in many states with high vaccination rates. New York and California are opening up and have lifted most, if not all, regulations including the mask mandates.

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