Opinion: To increase COVID-19 vaccination, don’t belittle vaccine fears

Laura Williamson

My heart instinctively sank as I read the text from my husband: “Can you call? We need to talk.” A few minutes later, I learned that our first Christmas as a married couple would have to be spent apart: He had been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. 

Like many, I have grown weary of our “new normal.” Thank goodness the vaccine is on its way, and we can all set our sights on a cozier next Christmas!

Yet despite this good news there are many Americans who have expressed reluctance to get vaccinated, leaving many to wonder if the pandemic will ever end. Although the number of Americans willing to get vaccinated has ticked up to 60%, that still leaves a contingent of roughly 40% of Americans who remain unwilling. 

If heavy-handed measures are taken to censor and silence those with understandable fears related to vaccination, it is likely to exacerbate the psychological reactance that has already led many to shun pandemic protocols, Williamson writes.

It's hard not to be frustrated at this somewhat widespread hesitance to get a vaccine that could solve all this. But we should be slow to judge. A heavy-handed approach on vaccination will only make matters worse.

I want the pandemic to end as much as anyone else, but we cannot expect people to get the COVID-19 vaccine if their qualms and concerns are not taken seriously. 

Vaccine refusal was a controversial topic long before the pandemic. Such movements have become more and more vexing for doctors, who see it as a tremendous liability. As early as 2005, a survey indicated that 39% of physicians would dismiss a family from their practice for refusing all vaccinations. 

It may be hard for some to understand why Americans are hesitant to receive an inoculation that they have been told could save their life or the lives of others. It might even be tempting for some to dismiss these concerns out of hand. But that won’t generate buy-in.

For example, consider the hesitancy of Black Americans, the group that is least likely to get vaccinated, with only 42% indicating their willingness to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. 

An opinion piece by commentator Andrea K. McDaniels summarized the troubled history behind the reservations of the Black community, even as she implored other Black Americans to consider vaccination: 

Doctors used Henrietta Lacks’ cells to develop medical breakthroughs without her consent. Researchers deliberately didn’t treat men with syphilis during the Tuskegee Syphilis study, leading to many deaths. The man sometimes known as the “father of gynecology” conducted experiments on enslaved Black women without using anesthesia. 

We shouldn’t be surprised that a community with this kind of history would hesitate before rolling up its sleeves to receive a vaccine that was developed at seemingly lightning speed. Frankly, it would be unreasonable to expect anything else. Trying to cajole doubtful communities like these into getting the vaccine won’t work. In fact, a heavy handed approach to vaccination would likely have the opposite effect. 

A December 2020 Scientific American article addressed the phenomenon of psychological reactance and its relationship with people’s refusal to follow pandemic protocols. Essentially, it explains that this quirk of human behavior causes us to want to do the opposite of whatever we are told to do when we feel our personal freedoms are being threatened. 

If heavy-handed measures are taken to censor and silence those with understandable fears related to vaccination, it is likely to exacerbate the psychological reactance that has already led many to shun pandemic protocols. 

Vaccine fears are not a concern found solely in fringe groups, and people’s individual reasons for refusing vaccination are often more than reasonable. Regardless of how effective vaccines are, they’re still scary. Being injected with a foreign substance is an inherently invasive medical procedure, and knowing that there are possible side effects makes people understandably nervous to go through with it. 

As concerns about Bell’s Palsey occurring in vaccine recipients circulate, it is reasonable that the general public would be put off. In addition, it doesn’t help that the government has granted immunity to Pfizer and Moderna if someone sues them because of adverse side-effects. 

Approaching this conversation with empathy and compassion is the most sensible way to put to rest the reservations of many. To do otherwise has the potential to discourage those who would have been willing to consider vaccination. For the sake of a possible return to normalcy, it is critical that policymakers at the state and federal level approach this dialogue with respect and culturally sensitive education campaigns on vaccine safety that openly acknowledge the concerns of the public. 

Laura Williamson is a political writer and a contributor for Young Voices. She is a born-and-raised Coloradoan and will graduate from Colorado Christian University in 2021.