How The Hell Do You Talk To Your Vaccine-Hesitant Friends?

Photographed by Serena Brown.
After a long 15 months of virus fears, yoyo-ing lockdowns and the race to develop effective treatments, COVID-19 vaccine rollouts are well underway. So far, 86% of UK adults have been vaccinated with their first dose and 65% with their second. After becoming eligible to book their first vaccine appointments, nearly 3.8 million 18 to 29-year-olds in England have had their first dose. For many, it’s a time to celebrate. But some are uncovering an awkward divide: the friends who are excitedly booking their jabs and those who aren’t.
Despite a surge of bookings causing digital vaccine 'queues', young people are the most vaccine-hesitant group in the UK, according to government data. A University of Glasgow study and other surveys also suggest that women and people from Black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities are less likely to take the COVID-19 vaccine, with many citing fears of future unknown side effects and issues with trust.
The mistrust isn’t completely unwarranted: women have historically been excluded from medical trials and the medical abuse of Black communities has damaged trust in mainstream medicine. "Healthcare gaslighting", whereby the concerns of women and people of colour are dismissed or downplayed, is ongoing. And though "extremely rare", blood clotting disorders linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine which occurred predominantly in women and young people prompted the UK’s vaccines regulator to recommend that under-40s receive a different vaccine brand. UK and EU authorities determined that the vaccine’s benefits outweigh any risks but these events can factor into people’s perceptions.

There's a scale of belief, from slight vaccine hesitancy to those who are more adamantly anti-vaccine and perhaps believe conspiracy theories such as that vaccines contain microchips.

Harmful misinformation has also played a part in people’s confidence in the shot. I would know – for the past two years I’ve been researching and reporting on disinformation, and misleading claims about COVID-19 vaccines are rife on and offline. Experts say there’s no plausible way the jabs would impact fertility but I’ve seen and heard such claims spreading since the rollout began. Falsehoods usually spawn on fringe websites and conspiracy theory channels before hitting mainstream social platforms and private messaging groups. They also travel through word of mouth or physically on posters, leaflets and graffiti. Of course, misinformation can be spread unintentionally. But scare stories can put people off having vaccines and be hard to counteract.
For Jamie*, a 35-year-old based in London, her 32-year-old former housemate’s resistance to the vaccine is strong and has driven a wedge in their three-year close friendship. "Everyone has different ideas and we respect each other so it’s not like our relationship has to be over," Jamie explains. "But if we touch this argument, sometimes it makes me speechless. She thinks you cannot provide facts that go against what she says."
While Jamie’s friend has taken her child for other recommended vaccinations, she is sceptical of COVID-19 jabs specifically after reading conspiracy theories online and hearing them from other friends. "They believe in COVID but they think that everything went too far." After some conflict, Jamie now avoids the conversation. "Otherwise it makes me upset, powerless and frustrated. It’s a taboo topic." 
It’s difficult to talk to loved ones about the subject, says Dr Sophia Komninou, a lecturer in public health at Swansea University. "Your advice is unsolicited and it’s hard to realise they have different values to you." But it’s a pivotal time to increase trust in the shot, so what’s the best way of broaching it?
Determining the reason or reasons somebody is hesitant will pave the way, says Dr Komninou. Some are sceptical of the science around the vaccine, such as from a lack of understanding of the authorisation process. Others may be more hesitant due to a general lack of trust in governments and authorities. Meanwhile, concerns can arise after exposure to misinformation and conspiracy theories online.
According to Mick West, author of Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect, there's also a scale of belief, from slight vaccine hesitancy to those who are more adamantly anti-vaccine and perhaps believe conspiracy theories such as that vaccines contain microchips. "Knowing where they fall on that spectrum shows you what’s the most productive area of conversation."

People do not respond to being mocked or criticised so if you say something like 'that's stupid' or 'you don't know what you're talking about', they're probably going to fight back against you.

Mick west
Either way, maintaining a relationship with an open dialogue is paramount, West explains. "It’s only when you’ve established some kind of effective communication that you can get into the details." You can ask what their concerns are and provide an alternative viewpoint, especially if they tend to rely on a narrow range of information, he says. "Something you want to do is [get them to] at least consider other sources while acknowledging they don’t trust it. Simply exposing people to information can have a good effect."
Prioritise easy-to-understand information that reinforces the upside of vaccines and how widespread support is, West advises. "From scientists to celebrities, point out there are a lot more people who support [vaccines] than there are people who are against it."
Don’t go in too hard immediately though, he says. "A 'gently does it' approach works well." Ridiculing people’s beliefs is also a big no-no and can actually drive people further into conspiracy theories. "People do not respond to being mocked or criticised so if you say something like ‘that’s stupid’ or ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about’, they’re probably going to fight back against you," he says, adding that the same goes for talking to acquaintances online. "Treat them as someone who is honestly trying to figure things out and get them to see you’re doing that as well." 
It may be a slow process. "If it’s a respectful conversation and you are opening them up to new information, it is helping even though it might seem like it’s not," says West. "You’re not going to drag someone out [of the rabbit hole] kicking and screaming but by enabling them to get out themselves. Keep at it and give it time."
Ultimately, it comes down to empathy and mutual respect. "Part of the way to speak to family and friends is to validate that it’s normal to feel hesitant," says Dr Komninou. "Opening up conversations and giving people validation goes a long way." Bear in mind the energy and time it takes to have these conversations, too. "Do what you can. You can’t change the world but if you convince one person it’s worth it, then that’s one more person vaccinated. Someone else will pick up the rest."
*Name changed to protect the interviewee's identity

More from Wellness

R29 Original Series