With Canadians nearing two full years in the pandemic, persuasive public-health messaging has become increasingly difficult. How do you convince people to remain vigilant this long into a crisis?
Yet compelling messaging is critical as the country faces three new challenges: motivating parents to vaccinate their children and adults to get their booster shots, while helping people understand what it means that the pandemic will be with us for some time.
“Science communicators” – researchers who’ve taken it upon themselves to translate science into language the public can understand – believe that pandemic messaging must be ever more honest and closely tailored to specific audiences. But it should also be human and empathetic, with a focus on installing hope.
“How we have these conversations makes a difference,” said Lesley Lutes, a professor at University of British Columbia, Okanagan campus.
At the start of the pandemic, Dr. Lutes and her colleague Scott Lear, a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University, provided regular briefings to B.C.’s Ministry of Health as part of a communications advisory committee. Today, they study how to best gear public-health advice toward young people. They argue that effective messaging runs two ways – taking into account people’s concerns and then helping them make informed choices. Government messaging that expresses frustration or directs blame at the public only leads to fatigue, apathy and resistance.
“Fear is not a really helpful motivator at this point. People are really burned out. Positive reinforcement and reminding people of the progress are key,” said Samantha Yammine, a Toronto science communicator who consults with Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada, translating guidance from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization into plain language.
Experts spoke with The Globe and Mail about where public-health messaging needs to go to resonate with Canadians today, 21 months into the global crisis.
On children’s vaccinations
Polled this past month on vaccinating their five- to 11-year-olds, 18 per cent of Quebec parents were strongly opposed and 11 per cent were unsure, according to a survey of 600 mothers and fathers conducted by Ève Dubé, a researcher at the Quebec National Institute of Public Health. Most had safety concerns, Dr. Dubé said.
“Women are less likely than men to want their kids vaccinated. The paradox is that women are more fearful of COVID than men are,” said Jack Jedwab, president of the Association for Canadian Studies, which, along with the market research firm Leger, polled parents nationally on this issue in September.
One problem is that Canadians have forgotten the devastation of diseases on children. Today, they take for granted that vaccines eradicated those illnesses, said Stan Kutcher, an independent senator from Nova Scotia.
“I have a lesion on my left bicep near the shoulder but my grandkids don’t have it. Why? Because we don’t have smallpox any more,” said Mr. Kutcher, who, along with Edmonton researcher Timothy Caulfield, created ScienceUpFirst, a national initiative that works with independent scientists, health care experts and other thinkers to counter misinformation.
Another challenge to buy-in on kids’ vaccination stems from early messaging that framed COVID-19 as a virus especially harmful to older people. “That was correct, but that messaging is going to come back and haunt public-health officials in trying to get younger kids vaccinated,” Dr. Lear said.
Experts agree that parents need scientific information that demonstrates safety, effectiveness and the rationale for vaccinating their young children. Messaging needs to incorporate the risks of infection in kids: long COVID, which can arise from even mild infection; multisystem inflammatory disorder, which is most prominent in children ages 5 to 11; and the chance of severe illness from the virus itself.
Messaging should also tout the indirect benefits of vaccinating kids – “not having to be quarantined, not being anxious about giving the disease to others, not having to close classes and schools,” said Dr. Dubé, who is an affiliated professor in anthropology at Laval University.
Parents may end up more swayed by their peers than by government messaging here. “When kids see other kids who’ve gotten vaccinated and the results are fine, that’s when we will see more reassurance and less nervousness. People need to hear from their peers. It needs to be people who you trust,” said Mr. Jedwab, who is also chair of the COVID-19 Social Impacts Network, a group of experts studying the social and economic effects of the pandemic in Canada.
Messaging around the third shot is tricky: Canadians were initially told that two shots would be their exit strategy from this crisis. People don’t feel they signed on for something more akin to an annual flu shot program.
“If you’ve said to people, ‘Go get your two doses and then the pandemic is over’ – but then after you’ve recommended a third dose, and after that we might still have outbreaks because we don’t have 100-per-cent vaccine uptake, it has a negative impact on trust in the vaccine program,” Dr. Dubé said.
Messaging on boosters needs to strike a careful tone: “It’s balancing that vaccines work but boosting helps them work back to perfection, so that even the inconveniences of mild infection aren’t as relevant as we mingle more,” Dr. Yammine said.
Mr. Jedwab’s polling suggests some younger adults ages 18 to 34 still don’t view boosters as necessary. So far, the rollout of the third shot has targeted older Canadians. A small segment of the youth population might need a “nudge” on boosters, the same way some did with their first two shots, Mr. Kutcher argued. “For some who couldn’t be bothered to get a vaccine – for whatever reason – as soon as it became, ‘I can’t go into a bar unless I’m vaccinated,’ they got their vaccines.”
On pandemic as endemic
The greatest paradigm shift will be explaining to Canadians what it means that the pandemic is now endemic – with us for some time to come.
“The very early days and weeks of the pandemic, that was our chance to eliminate COVID. We missed it,” Dr. Yammine said. “And so it’s not a surprise to people who study infectious diseases that we’ll keep hearing about COVID being in our lives for the next while. When you hear that, it’s easy to give up and say, ‘Screw it, I’m tired of all of this.’ The key is, just because it’s going to be around, doesn’t mean it always has to be as big a threat.”
In order to shift public thought toward COVID-19 as a manageable disease, the thinking on vaccination needs to be expanded, Mr. Kutcher said. At this stage of the pandemic, vaccines should be reframed as “part of a healthy lifestyle,” much like sleep, exercise and nutrition, he argued. “It’s about changing our lens to say, we’re living with it. So how can we stay healthy while we live with this reality?”
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