*Or sister or co-worker or crush or grandma or guy from the grocery store or just about anyone else.
Now that availability isn’t an issue and vaccine passports are being instituted across the country, it’s hard to believe that so many Canadians have yet to get the jab. True, we know that vaccination is by far the most-effective way to protect ourselves and others against a potentially deadly virus. And yes, the science is rock solid. Still, 22% percent of the eligible population remains sans-immunity, which means most of us know someone who fits the bill: a family member, a friend from work, the woman from yoga who lives for Botox but is now freaking out about putting something “unnatural” in her body.
It’s frustrating, even infuriating, but before you go hitting enter on that condescending Twitter tirade, there are a few things to consider. First off, there are plenty of legit reasons for mistrust in the medical establishment, particularly in BIPOC communities. Secondly, the brainwashing effect of medical misinformation is real. And finally, if the point is getting the people we care about to roll up their sleeves, it’s best to avoid eyerolls (and the eyeroll emoji). “Calling these people stupid or selfish is only going to cause them to double down,” says Sabina Vohra-Miller, a Toronto pharmacologist and founder of Unambiguous Science, an apolitical resource that breaks down complicated science and health info into digestible posts. Instead, try actually listening to your friends and loved ones, which — duh — but also maybe easier said than done.
With that in mind, R29 Canada pumped Vohra-Miller and other uniquely qualified experts to bring you this super easy, science-free, guaranteed-to-make-headway guide to convincing just about anyone to get vaxxed.
Unvaccinated doesn’t mean anti-vax
Whether they’re harassing restaurant owners, hurling gravel at the prime minister, or spreading harmful falsehoods via Drake memes, the hardcore anti-vax camp are skilled at making noise and getting noticed. In reality though, these conspiracy theorists represent an (extremely) vocal minority, which means there is no reason to assume that the unvaccinated person in your life is one of them. Statistically speaking, you can probably assume the opposite, since the vast majority of vaccine-free Canadians fall into the hesitant or complacent categories. “We know that it’s a small percentage of eligible unvaccinated Canadians who identify as anti-vax,” says Tim Caulfield, a science prof at the University of Alberta and author of the pseudo-science critique, Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? “Everyone else is what we refer to as the ‘movable middle’ and often bringing them onside is a matter of motivation.”
Hence recent government-driven initiatives aimed at making vaccination more accessible, like pop-up clinics at transit stations, malls, and university and college campuses. “If you are feeling nervous about something and it feels inconvenient, that’s two barriers,” says Caulfield. So start by letting your person know that a clinic has opened up at “Convenient Location X,” and offer to go along for moral support.
Try to find out where they’re coming from
This may seem obvious, but if you expect the person you’re talking to to actually listen, you should probably extend them the same courtesy. Because that is sort of a bare minimum of being a good friend/sister/niece/human being. And also because science says so: “When we don’t feel understood, we feel threatened and our brains go into defence mode,” says Shelle Rose Charvet, the Hamilton, ON -based author of Words That Change Minds. “One of the things I always say is if you want to change someone’s mind, you have to meet them at their bus stop.”
In the context of a vaccine conversation, that means asking your person to explain their key concern: Maybe they’re worried about what’s in the vaccine or maybe they don’t like the government telling them what to do. From there it’s important to express genuine curiosity and empathy. It’s an “oh?” [voice goes up to welcome more info] rather than an “oh” [judgy flat sound].” “Curiosity is going to open that door to a meaningful conversation, whereas judgment is going to slam it shut,” Rose Charvet says. Note that it’s possible to convey genuine curiosity even if you think being vaccine hesitant is right up there with thinking the earth is flat. Think of yourself like an therapist, your goal is to understand the other person, not to agree with them.
Now dig a little deeper
Among the most-popular responses expressed by vaccine-hesitant Canadians are “I don’t like the government telling me what to do and “I don't like putting unnatural things into my body.” The first is a good example of a person who makes decisions internally (meaning they need to feel like *they* came to their one conclusion) and the second is more external (a person who is seeking information via sources they trust). If you can figure which category your person falls into, that can inform what you say…and don’t say, Rose Charvet explains.
Take the “don’t tell me what to do” guy: “That person is motivated to judge for themselves, so this ‘responsible citizen’ don’t-you-care-about-your-grandma is not going to move them at all.” Instead, she suggests using language that frames getting vaccinated as something they are empowered to do. “You might say something about how once we get vaccinated we will be able to get back to our lives and making our own decisions about things.”
Skip the science and provide sources that stick
With external decision makers, you can try providing information from expert sources. Just remember that it’s never a good idea to overload with stats and science. Instead try curating a source the same way you would a birthday present. “If your friend is really into alternative medicine, she may not care what the CDC [or PHAC] has to say,” Caulfield explains. This logic, he adds, explains why a lot of the latest vaccination efforts involve recruiting trusted community members — family doctors, firefighters, pastors, Insta celebs — to share a pro-vaccine message: “Find a source that you know your friend is going to respect and you give them one less thing to object to.”
Suggest a vax-tivity ™
Meaning something fun your person may want to do that will require a vaccine. This strategy is maybe a little below the belt, but this is a global health pandemic and sometimes you gotta play dirty. More and more provinces are implementing vaccine passports which means the un-jabbed won’t be able to dine indoors, go to concerts, or book a flight to NYC. The goal of vaccine mandates is to keep people safe, but also to act as an incentive. Vaccine bookings have gone up in B.C., Quebec, and Ontario since these provinces announced passports. “When people realize the practical implications of being unvaccinated, they are likely to reconsider,” says Caulfield. So maybe mention the new restaurant you’re dying to try or the girls trip you’re planning. “One thing that is so important is that people need a dignified path to changing their mind. If it feels like they’re caving, that could cause them to hold out longer than they want to.”
Changing minds is a marathon
On Netflix, moments of transformation happen in front of our eyes, mostly because it would be pretty boring to watch shows about people making key decisions off screen. IRL though, our minds change in quiet moments and it’s less an “aha!” than a series of small shifts. “Most of the time these are not a one-and-done discussion,” says Vohra-Miller. The key is to keep the lines of communication open at the end of each chat (i.e, change the topic if things start to feel tense) and once you’ve actually listened (see above), maybe offer to send them an interesting article or two (max). Then leave it.
“Most people want time to sit with information without pressure,” Vohra-Miller says. Don’t stress if it feels like you aren’t getting anywhere and remember that cutting a person off is the best way to send them flying into the arms of the anti-vax
cult movement. So even if you’re not talking about the vaccine, keep talking — ideally in an outdoor space while wearing a face mask and maintaining social distance.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the Public Health Agency of Canada website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.