Fear, frustration, despair and hope. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a rollercoaster of emotions for people around the world. The race to vaccinate has been seen as the answer.
Yet it has become clear as day that this race must tackle an epidemic of misinformation and mistrust. This battle of the mind is one of the keys to unlocking the door at the end of the long, dark, Coronavirus tunnel.
Just as the end seems close, new waves of COVID-19 are crashing into homes across the world, from France to the Philippines. The equation is simple: the more people who are vaccinated, the less the virus can spread and mutate, and the more lives are saved.
Overcoming hesitancy to reach a critical mass is a delicate balancing act. We need to listen to people’s concerns and address these, while making sure there is accurate information available. That way people are active participants in becoming vaccinated and can in turn influence their families and communities.
There is mounting evidence that misinformation about COVID-19 via social media or other online sites can reduce the likelihood that people will choose to be vaccinated.
A recent study from Imperial College London, showed that when people were exposed to misinformation there was a 6 percent reduction in people prepared to accept a vaccine, in both the United States and the United Kingdom.
Ultimately, reluctance to vaccinate bred by misinformation could be the decider in reaching sufficient levels of vaccination to overcome this disease. It is truly a case of life and death.
Right across Asia, there are positive signs that attitudes are shifting as vaccine rollouts get underway. Yet recent spikes in cases are bringing emotions to a volatile level.
When most were expecting new cases to keep stabilizing or going down, in many countries, numbers have skyrocketed in a matter of days. This creates despair and a fertile environment for misinformation. When life and everything we know is destabilized, trust becomes a casualty.
Despite the hope offered by immunizations, there are alarming levels of caution. A Pulse Asia opinion poll in the Philippines last December showed that only one third of Filipinos would get the jab.
This pattern is repeated world over according to Our World in Data. In Asia some countries fare better than others. A Tokyo Medical University study showed that 62 percent of people had a high likelihood of being vaccinated while another Kawasaki Medical School analysis found two thirds of Japanese were willing to be immunized.
In Indonesia, which has the most COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia, a December survey by Saiful Mujani research showed only 37 percent were willing to be vaccinated, while 40 percent were undecided.
When I helped eradicate polio in the Philippines 20 years ago, I saw first-hand how misinformation could be overcome. In recent months we have seen a huge shift in public confidence across many countries in Asia. In the Philippines, this has been helped by the Philippine Red Cross working with local authorities to vaccinated more than one million children against measles and polio in the past few months, despite the raging pandemic.
Around 2,000 volunteers have been going door-to-door in what many have told me has been a perfect preparation to support national COVID-19 vaccinations. This effort demonstrates that vaccine hesitancy can be overcome through social solidarity. Trained volunteers in the community who listen, inform and reassure people that vaccinations save lives.
The arrival of vaccines provides glimmers of hope. When we see doctors, frontline workers and older people protected with vaccines it’s more than a psychological lift. A Ben-Gurion University-Sackler School of Medicine study from Israel shows that when high levels of older people are vaccinated, severe cases are reduced by two thirds. A UK government study showed that vaccinated over 80-year-olds are 80 percent less likely to be hospitalized.
The UK is on track to reach herd immunity in 2021, where at least 60-70 percent of the eligible population is vaccinated to prevent spread of the disease. Much of Asia faces a very different future. Currently, around 209 million COVID-19 vaccines have been administered across Asia in the first three months of 2021. That’s a rate of about 836 million a year, which means it would take around five and a half years at current rates to vaccinate the population of Asia.
While fear and misinformation must be addressed, the much bigger barrier is the lack of supply for the less developed countries that do not manufacture their own vaccines.
In a world where communication is instantaneous, many people are seeing that other parts of the world are vaccinating faster and that they do not have access to vaccines even when they want to be vaccinated. This leads to frustration and the further deterioration of trust.
The Philippines for example, has over 10 million workers overseas. Many of these workers are hospital staff in other countries who have been vaccinated and are helping convince their families at home that vaccines are safe and that they should get vaccinated. While this is good, expectations can run high. If the global supply chain cannot get vaccines to many countries in Asia fast enough, then these expectations need to be better managed.
There’s a critical role for organizations like Red Cross in continuing to prevent spread of the virus, testing, responding to the surge of cases and providing care. All the while we need to prepare communities for vaccination and explain the challenges of getting access to COVID19 vaccinations in many areas. All this poses huge challenges for reaching herd immunity in Asia anytime soon.
It means that masks, physical distancing and hand hygiene, are here to stay. We can all play our part in sharing accurate information with our loved ones.
We can dispel the myths and vaccinate enough people to get to the light at the end of the tunnel. Lives depend on it.
The writer is Asia Pacific strategic advisor of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and former Philippines deputy secretary of health.