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How to address vaccine reluctance

Last weekend, I turned twenty—a sort-of-big birthday but very bittersweet. I was grateful to spend the day with loved ones, to be healthy, to have happiness, to be able to celebrate at all. But there was also sadness: I turned 19 three weeks after the country shut down in March 2020, so my birthday became a bleak milestone announcing that it has been one year gone. Unlike last year, however, there is now the promise of a twenty-first birthday celebrated in public, delivered in the form of the newly available COVID-19 vaccines. 

While I am anxious for a return to normalcy, one that extends well beyond the context of birthday celebrations, my reaction to the possibility of getting vaccinated could be described as reluctant at best. After a year of being hyper-protective of my body and health, the idea of receiving this vaccine—quickly developed, newly released—feels like a risk. And I’m not alone in my hesitation. 

Data gathered following the development of the COVID-19 vaccines have not necessarily been promising: considerable percentages of Americans have still not committed to the prospect of inoculation. According to a March article from the Pew Research Center, only 51% of Americans either had been or planned to be vaccinated at the time of publication. 17% claimed that they would likely receive the vaccine. The other 30% said that they likely or certainly wouldn’t receive the vaccine. Perhaps most surprising is the fact that within this 30%, merely 36% could be described as anti-vaxxers. Instead, the most prevalent reasons for remaining unvaccinated are perfectly rational: they include “concerns about side effects” and reservations about the pace of progress, as well as acknowledgment of insufficient information about efficacy. 

I cite these numbers to show that too many Americans are reasonably uncomfortable with the COVID-19 vaccines, and to then challenge the current rhetoric about vaccinations within some progressive circles. There seems to be promotion of the idea that one needs to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, lest she be deemed selfish or ignorant. This approach is not particularly productive—it effectively applies the broader (politically charged) conversation about vaccinations and anti-vaxxers to the COVID-19 vaccine specifically. Unfortunately, in doing so, it fails to encourage those in a state of uncertainty from seeking vaccination. 

I’m of the mind that when attempting to persuade someone, it is best not to use insults as the method of choice. Instead of making the recipient miraculously agree, insults trigger a defensive response that has the effect of repellence rather than attraction. This is especially true when it comes to contentious matters like those regarding COVID-19, which hit a sore spot for so many people.

In my case, I am absolutely unreceptive to being called “selfish” when I have spent the last year at home to minimize the risk of infecting myself or my family. Furthermore, the implicit choice to receive the vaccine or perpetuate the spread of COVID-19 is a false dichotomy. In reality, the options are actually to either receive the vaccine or continue to wear a mask in public and practice social distancing (effective preventative measures which, for now, need to be done regardless of vaccination status). 

Additionally, I am not a fan of hurling the term “ignorant” in response to hesitation about the vaccine. I do not have a background in biology. No one in my family has a background in biology. When I read about the vaccine, I do not have sufficient knowledge to fully understand what it means for one company to use mRNA technology while another company doesn’t. It is difficult to contextualize the risk involved with the vaccines while reading about cases of serious reactions or fatalities following inoculation. Ultimately, I am lucky to have the time and resources to answer my questions (more or less) by conducting further research. A lot of people do not. 

My goal in writing this article is not to deter readers from receiving the vaccine. Despite my hesitation, I will likely choose to be vaccinated—and sooner rather than later. The appeal of worrying less about getting sick or transmitting the illness to loved ones, as well as the probability that access will soon be restricted to the vaccinated, is too great to deny. My decision to get the vaccine, however, does not mean that my concerns have dissipated. 

When nearly 50% of the population is less than certain about—if not fully opposed to—receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, the number is too large to ignore or to simply write off as comprising political outliers. Essentially, when it comes to making a choice concerning one’s body, it is crucial that the individual be 100% comfortable with the final decision. Instead of shaming the population into receiving the vaccine, then, we should focus on educating people so that they can make the decision themselves, willingly and enthusiastically.

This means making reliable resources readily available, delivering information in accessible terms, and, most importantly, acknowledging risks and assuaging fears, responding with compassion rather than belittlement.

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