The strain of prolonged and repeated COVID lockdowns has taken a toll on Victorians, most notably those in affected small businesses and workers who have lost jobs. The mental and financial strain will continue to linger. Yet when presented with a vaccine, Australians are becoming more hesitant to be vaccinated. Part of the answer to combatting vaccine refusal or hesitancy lies within each of our strong social networks, and I don’t mean Instagram or Facebook.
The percentage of Australian’s who are willing to be vaccinated dropped from 74% in October 2020 to 66% in February this year. The biggest drop in willingness to be vaccinated occurred amongst unemployed Australians and those who report ‘being anxious most/all of the time’.
Doubts about effectiveness of the vaccines and concerns around the safety and side effects are the main reasons for Australian’s refusal or hesitancy. There is also a growing cohort who would prefer to wait for the next vaccine in the hope it is more effective, or who believe they are so low-risk of illness that they don’t need to be vaccinated.
As a small business owner who had to deal with all the ups and downs of closures/openings, staff lay-offs and renegotiating leases and finances, on top of navigating home-schooling, my first reactions to vaccine refusers are bewilderment and thinly-veiled-anger-emojis. However, a more useful reaction would be an unbridled positivity for the vaccine and the science behind it, and a willingness to share this positivity with my family, friends and local community in order to influence their behavior.
Professor Damon Centola, a change expert from the University of Pennsylvania, writes that the way behavioural changes spread are through strong social ties. His research shows that social confirmation among peers is necessary for people to view a new behaviour, technology or idea as legitimate and credible.
We need to see members of our own community, friends or family confirming a behaviour for us to adopt it. Social media influencers have only superficial influence amongst their digital networks. Real behaviour change must be reinforced by people we know and trust intimately, not celebrities. The upshot is that changing the mind or behaviour of a vaccine-refuser is impossible unless they view vaccination as credible, legitimate and acceptable amongst their own community, friends or family.
Regardless of personal beliefs or doubts about the vaccine, individuals need to consider the health and wellbeing of others when choosing whether to be vaccinated or not. The vaccines approved all reduce the risk of serious illness or death in at least 85% of people. And it appears increasingly more likely that vaccines will reduce community transmission rates to enable the achievement of herd immunity. Yet this won’t be possible unless most Australians get the jab. We can all help by positively promoting the importance of vaccination within our own networks.
Jerome Higgins is the owner and physiotherapist at Form & Practice Olinda, and a Master of Health Economics student at Deakin University. His thoughts are his own.