In the months to come, there is every reason to believe the pandemic can be ended through the vaccination of millions of Canadians.
It will be an enormous logistical challenge. But success is going to involve more than just setting up vaccination centres, or buying masses of ultracold freezers. It’s going to need something that isn’t for sale: public support.
For a mass-inoculation campaign to succeed, or happen at all, Canadians must have confidence that getting the shots is the right thing to do.
And right about now, many Canadians are reluctant – about vaccines, and about government decisions in general. To some extent, they have reason to be.
We are nine months into a pandemic that has killed 13,000 Canadians and counting. With the exception of Atlantic Canada, where aggressive actions largely kept the virus in check, the rest of the country has been treated to a lot of illness and economic pain, assisted by episodes of government confusion, ignorance, inertia and mismanagement. A lot of your friends and neighbours are not exactly of a mind to take government pronouncements on faith.
An Ipsos poll of 1,000 Canadians released early last month found that, when people were asked if they would take vaccines without hesitation when they become available, nearly half of respondents said they would not. And a recent Angus Reid Institute poll found that, while 40 per cent of Canadians wanted to be vaccinated as soon as possible, 36 per cent would prefer to wait. The share of those eager to take the vaccine has fallen since July, and the number who are reluctant has risen.
Only a small number of Canadians are anti-vaxxers. Most Canadians are reasonable and rational folks. They badly want to see the back of COVID-19, and they are not the least bit hostile to science or medicine.
They are, however, understandably reluctant about vaccines that have been developed at record speed, and which have received or are about to receive rapid stamps of approval from the same governments that bungled so many other pandemic must-dos.
For a journalist, one of the key job attributes is a certain degree of skepticism. Not cynicism towards authority, but rather a need to check what people in authority are telling us. A desire for evidence and proof.
We can hardly condemn Canadians for having questions, and wanting answers.
Those who are vaccine-reluctant are not irrational. Quite the opposite. These people want reassurance, and that means something more than one more shallow government communications branding strategy, involving 15-second web ads to tell taxpayers that everything is all right.
Instead, Canadians need to be levelled with, in depth and in detail, about what science and medicine know about the vaccines – the benefits, which are considerable, and the risks, which appear to be low but are not non-existent for everyone.
For example, all vaccines can have side effects for a small percentage of recipients; in the case of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, regulators in Britain are currently studying two cases of people with allergies who experienced adverse reactions.
Giving Canadians the full picture, including any dangers or possible rare side effects, will inspire confidence about the efficacy and safety of the vaccine.
To ensure the vaccine rollout goes well, with an overwhelming majority of Canadians at ease with the idea that taking the vaccine is the right way to go, the country doesn’t need another inch-deep marketing campaign, but some long-form adult conversations. Things such as town halls – or, under the circumstances, virtual town halls.
Another Ipsos study recently found that doctors and scientists are society’s most trusted people. (Least trusted? Politicians.) It would really help to have some top scientists and physicians leading a national conversation, to explain to Canadians how the vaccines were approved, how they work, what the dangers are and for whom, and how and why any downsides are vastly outweighed by the benefits.
Many thoughtful and reasonable Canadians, having over the past nine months lived through more than a few screw-ups from government leaders clearly out of their depth, are feeling a certain reluctance about vaccines. Their concerns should be addressed, not dismissed.
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