Vaccinate everyone and end the Covid-19 pandemic, you’re going to have to talk to your mom. Probably your grandfather too. Let’s call it the Adult Children’s Crusade. The vaccines are coming, but are people coming for the vaccines? Forget him anti-vaccine fringe, for a moment; by far the most problematic group will be the “hesitant vaccine“—Moms and dads and grannies and uncles who don’t believe in a great conspiracy theory about Bill Gates and microchips, but I feel a little uncomfortable with it all.
Uncomfortable parents are my specialty. As a doctor, I have tried for years to get my family and friends to follow careful medical advice. It didn’t go so well. Ten years ago they said, “You’re just in medical school. Then I was “just in residence”. Now, unfortunately, I’m a pathologist, who doesn’t exactly shout “nobody from people”. I have had some success, however. Last year, after a hundred sweet conversations, I finally convinced my parents to get the flu shot. (Verdict: “It wasn’t that bad.”) A few months later, Covid-19 struck. I try not to feel completely responsible for this irony.
How did I secure my Pyrrhic victory? Explaining, again and again, that serious side effects from the vaccine are very rare; that it does not offer perfect immunity, but that it is still precious; that I received injections every year and that my arms did not fall; that it is covered by insurance; that it is easy to obtain. Two years ago, I almost managed to convince my mom while I was in the grocery store with her. Then a little old lady like my mother turned around at the cash register and said that she had heard of someone who deceased flu shot. It took me back a while.
Ultimately when my mom finally gave in (and my dad gave in to my mom) she said it was because she knew that as her son I loved her and would always recommend what I really thought was the best. This was more than she could say about her real doctors, who apparently don’t get any descent points.
News media will be inundated with information about the Covid-19 vaccine in the coming months. There will surely be deniers, conspirators, wackos. There will be reasonable discussions about the trade-offs and uncertainties of the vaccine. But I am convinced that most of the media recognize their responsibility to build confidence in this vital public health intervention.
It will still not be enough. News, even when delivered with good intentions, can be chaotic and contradictory. Stories emerge, but we hear too much from too many angles to keep it straight. Your uncle’s Facebook friends also face stiff competition. Who do you really want him to believe, CNN or Jim from college?
Maybe our crusade needs an FAQ. Short videos of adult children sighing through answers to silly questions our loved ones are forced to ask – ones too dumb for even wired news to address. No, RNA was not invented by Pfizer; it’s already a real thing! No, you don’t personally have to buy an ultra-cold freezer if you want the vaccine; there are people who will take care of this part. Yes, I’ll talk to you again if you don’t take the picture; but we will mostly talk about the reasons why you should take it, and it wouldn’t be boring.
Ultimately, our friends and family ask us to answer silly questions or demystify a cousin’s Facebook post because they are uncomfortable and scared. It has been a year of unprecedented experiences, at least for those of us who did not experience the 1918 flu. Some trepidation is reasonable. You don’t have to be a doctor to adequately address these concerns. You have to practice love, patience, and understanding.
As a gay man, this is not the first virus to scare me. HIV remains endemic in our community. Gays talk about it, think about it, unfortunately still contract it. The fight against this virus also required de-stigmatization at the personal and community level. I have friends who get tested with their new boyfriend. If you let a trip to the clinic seem as easy as a trip to Starbucks, it just gets easier. Eating your own dog food, as they say, is also powerful. Go have your picture taken alongside your grandfather. Explain why you personally think it is important for you and your community to get the vaccine. Make it a day, eat take out after.
It turns out that there is real science to support the idea that “empathy and a bonded relationship” can change hearts and minds about vaccines. Experts to suggest that “prosocial” messages emphasizing altruism, family and community may be more effective than fear tactics. But more importantly, it looks like it should be true, which sort of is the point.
We live with an information glut. As a voracious news consumer, I am grateful for having easy access to the world’s knowledge. But it’s damn confusing. At this critical time, let compassion guide you instead. Start discussing the vaccine with family and friends now. As more details become available, make a specific plan for how you are all going to get the photo. The first step in the vaccine race was scientific; the latter will be human.
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