Overcoming fear of the vaccine
Last year, it was fear of the virus. We prayed for a vaccine so we could open schools, go to work, shop, dine, and travel again.
Now comes the good news. Millions of vaccines will soon be delivered. Some mayors have begun to prepare and even conduct dry runs to ensure the smooth rollout of the vaccination program.
But now that the vaccine will soon be available, why is it that about half of the Philippine population is not willing to be vaccinated? Most people I have talked to are itching to go back to the pre-pandemic situation, but they’re not ready to give their arm for the jab. Mind you, these are knowledgeable people, and maybe because of that, they are not willing to be vaccinated. Not yet, anyway. “Wait and see” is their response. “Mauna muna sila” (Let others go ahead first).
According to Pulse Asia’s November-December survey, 47 percent of Filipinos said they will not get vaccinated, 32 percent will, while 21 percent are undecided. Of the total respondents, 84 percent said they are not sure it’s safe.
Since the delivery of vaccines will be staggered anyway, the timing might just be perfect. Start first with the medical frontliners, the elderly, and the most vulnerable. Then target the 32 percent who are willing to get the jab. We just have to make sure the prioritization of people in this group is clear, transparent, and fair.
But what about the 47 percent who are not willing to be vaccinated?
It’s time to rely on our good mayors who can show their counterparts or even national leaders how it should be done. It is a sad reality that those who are governed well will get more opportunities than the others, because there are mayors who, after a year, are still caught flat-footed. Natutulog sa pansitan, as the saying goes. We just have to rely on our good local leaders to make this happen. Hopefully, the other mayors will learn from the best practices of their colleagues.
First, a strategic communication strategy at the local level is in order. And when I say communication, it is not a one-way or a top-down dissemination of information. That’s what we get anyway from the Department of Health. At the local level, people can voice out and articulate their fears. They can ask questions and probe further. It’s easy to dish out statistics to people whose fears seem to stem from lack of information. But fear is a strong emotion and it can be triggered, rightly or wrongly, by perceptions. To some people, data might help. But to some, that might just be “noise.”
Three principles we can consider in the communication strategy: trust, consistency, and proactive leadership.
The source of information should be a trusted individual in the community. He or she may be the barangay health worker, the doctor in the health center, the teacher, the barber, or even the jueteng collector. Identify those people at the local level. Sometimes, they do not carry a title, but people listen to them. If needed, they should be equipped with relevant information so they could be reliable channels of information.
Consistency in messaging is key. Silence is not an option, and so is lying. When there is no definite answer, admit it. Reach out first to the internal stakeholders—the staff in city hall, the barangay leaders, the health workers in the health center. You might be surprised that they, too, have questions and concerns. They are the people who get asked often because people think they have the answers. But if there is confusion internally, that is what will be communicated externally.
Once the vaccination starts, a crisis could erupt anytime. Proactive leadership anticipates and plans ahead. One adverse reaction, and social media spreads it wildly. One negative news spreads quicker than the 99 successful cases. It takes several months to build the trust of the people and one single case to throw that away. For example, how are we getting prepared for the growing concern about the impact of variants on the vaccines that are being made available now?
Finally, the communication strategy should make the citizens feel they are in control. That they have the right to choose, because it is their body. This seems counter to the goal of giving them the jab. But once they know they are in control, and they can talk about their fears and can probe to find answers to their doubts, their decision will not be based on fear, but on available facts.
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Leonora Aquino-Gonzales used to work at the World Bank as a communications specialist and currently teaches at the College of Mass Communications, University of the Philippines.
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