Behavioural experts: How to get people to take covid19 vaccines

Edison Bernadine receives his third dose of sinopharm from nurse Mikki Applewhite at Courts Megastore, Aranguez on November 26.  - PHOTO BY SUREASH CHOLAI
Edison Bernadine receives his third dose of sinopharm from nurse Mikki Applewhite at Courts Megastore, Aranguez on November 26. - PHOTO BY SUREASH CHOLAI

Despite TT experiencing its third wave of the pandemic with record-breaking numbers, many people are still hesitant to get vaccinated and some ignore the health restrictions imposed to keep people safe.

Just on Friday, TT recorded its highest number of daily covid19 cases to date with 984 cases – the previous highest number was 781 on November 17. Also, TT surpassed its record number of deaths in 24 hours twice, with 28 deaths on November 20 and 31 on November 25.

Yet, people are still liming and having parties, wearing their masks under their noses and are generally careless about health protocols, and are refusing to get vaccinated.

Mental health professionals say some of the behaviour is not simply people being stubborn, and what the government must do is listen to people and change its communication strategy.

Behavioural health consultant Dr Stacy Murray explained that whatever people feed their minds would be expressed through their thinking and behaviour.

Therefore four of the many reasons people may reject covid19 vaccinations and health protocols include:

1. Conspiracy theories. Some people have a conformation bias so they look for any information that supports what they believe and dismiss all the positive claims about the vaccines.

2. Learned helplessness.

“It’s a belief that, ‘This is out of my control. It doesn’t matter what I do so what’s the sense of fighting it? I’ll have to die some day anyway.’ They become numb to what is taking place around them.”

3. Herd mentality. There are those who may not have their own personal beliefs or do not know what to believe so they go with the crowd because the majority says not to take the vaccine.

4. Optimism bias. There are people who believe they are immune to covid19 or if they get it, their case will be mild.

“They feel they are Hulk and Superman and Wonder Woman. It can’t do them anything so they could go out without their mask, they could go to parties and all these different things and they won’t get it.

“These are persons who may have been exposed to persons who had the virus and they did not get infected so they tell themselves, ‘Yeah man, my immune system is strong.’ Because of that mentality their behaviour will display that kind of attitude.”

Murray said to reach those people it is necessary to change their belief systems, which is difficult. Therefore, it is important to change the way covid19 information is disseminated.

“Right now we are using fear tactics. Research has shown once we use fear to try to persuade persons to do something, we are going to get the opposite effect. And once you introduce fear tactics to a population, you are going to get resistance.”


People on the move on Frederick Street, Port of Spain on December 1. As covid19 cases surge, behavioural experts say a new communication strategy is necessary to motivate people to get vaccinated and follow health protocols. - PHOTO BY SUREASH CHOLAI

She said the tactics will work with some people but it is not working with the mass vaccination drive. Instead, the authorities will have to understand people at their level and eradicate the negative beliefs people have. She stressed everyone has their own reasons why they do not want to get vaccinated or are not following the protocols so one strategy will not fit all.

“We have to use tactics that are not strict, that does not threaten people’s jobs, that is not using fear. The communication strategies should be humanistic, more positive, more subtle, letting people know we know it’s their right to choose.”

She said if people’s rights are ignored or they feel they are not given a choice, they will resist. The authorities need to make people feel comfortable and respected so they can be subtly persuaded.

She added that separation of the vaccinated from the unvaccinated is a form of discrimination, and the group that feels victimised may retaliate.

“I think it’s going to have some negative consequences if we continue to separate the vaccinated from the unvaccinated. It’s going to form some type of conflict eventually."

Clinical therapist Hanif Benjamin agreed that the matter is a behavioural issue since Trinidadians and Tobagonians are naturally social people who lime, hug, touch, and kiss each other on meeting.

“This is not just a medical emergency. This is a behavioural emergency. We are asking people to stop doing the things that come naturally to them. It is almost as if we have to perform cognitive behaviour therapy on a whole country. We are asking people to behave in a way that is not normal so the conversation has to form a behavioural approach.”

For example, he said children have been away from school for almost two years and the only time they would wear a mask would be when they leave the home. Now, they are being asked to wear a mask all day at school.

“From a behavioural perspective, how do you think that’s going to work?”

He also believed “safe zones” implies people will be safe there, creating a false sense of security since, although the risk is lower in the vaccinated, they could still contract and spread covid19.

“I think the message we should be sending to people is that nowhere is safe, and I’m not hearing that. We should operate as if everybody, every situation is covid bound. That in itself will help change a behaviour.”

He stressed that he is “100 per cent for the vaccine,” that he and his family have been vaccinated and he encourages and arranges for others to do so as well. However, he said vaccination is just one of the tools to help the country.

“We have to tell people as it is and say, ‘Listen here. We know the vaccines are not perfect, we know that the circumstances are not perfect, but it is the best option we have and this is what we have as a tool to use to save lives until better can be done. In the meantime, we still have to be rigorous about being safe.’”

He added that not everyone who is hesitant about taking the vaccine is an anti-vaxxer. Many are scared and confused because they are getting conflicting information from friends and on social media, and the information from the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization is changing rapidly as more is discovered about the virus.

Therefore, the authorities need to listen to people differently.

“Rather than telling people they are an anti-vaxxer and making them feel they are unpatriotic, and they have to put the country first and all kinds of nonsense, we have to listen and give them the information they need.

“The country has reached a peak in terms of vaccination. If we are to push the country to getting most adults vaccinated, we have to begin a different dialogue.”

He added that children should be included in the conversation, and it should be stressed that even the vaccinated have to have personal responsibility.

He suggested every create a “circle of influence” where each individual has people around them and ensures everyone in that circle practices a routine. For example, remind and ensure everyone sanitises after entering a vehicle every time, or handles masks from the ear straps and sanitises afterwards every time.

Also, people should leave the home with deliberation, with a purpose. If an individual is going to the grocery, have a list, get in, make purchases and return home. Do not go driving around, finding other places or people to visit.

“If it is that a behavioural approach can change people’s minds we have to practice. And if we take charge of our individual circle of influence, we reduce the risks.”

About those not following regulations, he said not everyone will understand the information being dispensed by the authorities and the traditional media. So information should be broken down in ways the average person can understand.

Then, there are people who, unless they feel and see and taste something, and they are not personally affected, they would not concern themselves with it.

“They are surrounded by it with daily press conferences and international media, from people who had covid and couldn’t breathe and they thought they were going to die. Yet people are still nonchalant because it did not happen to them.”

He added that he believed children should not be made to go to school all day. That citizens are not living in normal times trying to fit a normal curriculum in an abnormal scenario should not be done.

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