A month or so ago, I was driving my family through the Hill Street intersection on the way to the beach. Protesters had gathered on the Kowhai Park corner of the intersection and were vocalising their opposition to the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out. They were waving signs at passing cars that read things like “Covid Scam” or “No Vaccine”. The rest of the car ride to the beach was spent trying to explain – in as positive and non-judgemental tones as possible – the motivations and mindset of the gathered crowd to our children.
This column isn’t for the small minority who share the views of the Kowhai Park crowd. Rather, this column is directed to those of us who know someone – or some people – who are feeling uncertain about the safety of the vaccine and have been putting off getting their jab out of fear. Perhaps that someone is you.
Let me start by saying that I completely understand and empathise. When I had the opportunity to receive my first Covid-19 jab, even I – a public health researcher – had a smidge of hesitancy as I pulled into the carpark at the vaccination centre. That pang of worry – that fear of the unknown as the needle hits your skin – is not the same thing as denying the existence of Covid-19, nor the importance of the vaccine as a means of controlling it. Just because someone has delayed having their jab out of hesitancy doesn’t make them part of the Kowhai Park crowd. It just makes them, or you, human.
To those who are vaccine-hesitant: Please know that the fear of vaccine safety can irrationally spook us into believing that the vaccine poses a greater threat to us than the disease it is trying to prevent. Multiple clinical trials and millions of real-world doses have shown us that the vaccine works and is safe. That doesn’t mean that adverse reactions don’t happen, but the chance of them happening pales into insignificance when compared to the very real chance of becoming ill or dying from Covid-19. Also, please know that the pathway back to anything resembling normality will be paved with empty syringes. There is simply no way around it: we cannot lockdown forever and New Zealanders will not tolerate avoidable deaths. Vaccination is our only hope to protect ourselves, and the most vulnerable members of our community, against the worst impacts of this disease in the long term.
To those with friends or family members who are unsure about getting the vaccine, the best thing that we can do is support them through their decision-making process. Blaming and shaming will only lead to further entrenchment of negative views toward the vaccine. We must be prepared to listen to their concerns – only then will we have an opportunity to offer a kind word that might curb their hesitancy. Encouragement, rather than judgement; respect, rather than contempt. And just like Richie McCaw, the best leaders often lead by example. In other words, getting your own shots as soon as possible will show hesitant loved ones that they have little to fear.
By Dr Jason Gurney