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Decisive action needed to develop effective messaging to increase vaccine take up

As I reflected on how the political temperature in the United States declined after the elections; and the contrasting leadership styles of former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden, I immediately begun to see how these two factors are influencing the current battle against Covid-19 in the United States.

There is no doubt that the former President’s leadership style was autocratic and divisive, however current President Joe Biden has adopted a transformational, non-combative approach. This has facilitated a tone down in the tense political climate and a concerted effort in combating Covid-19, that, to date, has largely been successful.

Unlike the current situation in the US, Grenada is stuck with a leader that has often shown autocratic tendencies, is divisive, combative and has lost support among key constituents in society.

After listening to the CMO and his boss in a recent press briefing, I remembered the words of Shep Hyken, New York Times best-selling author, ‘leadership sets the standard for how others behave. Leadership sets the tone of the culture’.

The words of Shep Hyken are so true for Grenada when you look at the behaviour and attitude of the leader and how it reflects on the actions and words of his minions.

The arrogant insincerity displayed by these two men must have rubbed off from the leader. They have lost credibility with large sections of the population and as such can’t be good messengers.

Few people would listen much less be swayed by them and herein lies a big problem in the fight against vaccine hesitancy.

People are not listening to the messengers. The arrogant, divisive, and combative stance of the leader have not only drove people into open defiance but created also a strong mistrust towards authoritative figures in public administration, in particular healthcare.

The bias and inequitable enforcement of public health protocols by relevant agencies under the stewardship of these two men have badly damaged their credibility.

In addition, these two men appear not to appreciate the complex forces driving vaccine hesitancy and heterogeneity of vaccine hesitants.

Their messaging as a result has reflected that of the leader and is largely ineffective to say the least. The question is why these men not take action to acquire capability to properly address vaccine hesitancy. What is holding them back?

After listening to Kellon Bubb, a Grenadian recent doctorial graduate whose thesis focuses on health education based in Washington, DC, there are resources human and otherwise that could be available to assist the Ministry of Health in combating vaccine hesitancy.

The symposium titled, A Conversation with the Diaspora held last Sunday, May 16th highlights the difficulty in messaging for a diverse audience on such a complex subject like vaccine hesitancy.

Though the initiative was a timely one the messaging was too narrowly focused and failed to appreciate the heterogeneous nature of vaccine hesitants. Among this grouping are anti-vaxxers, religious congregations, and skeptics.

Some are dead set against vaccines, while others are driven by religious consideration underpinned by mistrust of the State, another group are influenced by their experience with State institutions and others motivated by misinformation spread on various social media platforms.

Messaging would have to be variously tailored to address specific concerns of each group. The exercise on Sunday failed to do so.

To use the, ‘one size fits all’, approach to messaging for a heterogeneous group like vaccine hesitants is an exercise in futility.

So when I heard the Minister and his minion being all triumphalist about the uptick in vaccinations I think they are trying to ‘read the tea leaves’. However they should express cautious optimism and back that up with acquiring capability to develop appropriate messaging to the various sub-groups under the vaccine hesitant banner.

From cursory observations and conversations with some of those who have taken the vaccine over the last couple days, it appears that most of them who took the first shot of the vaccine, it appears they were on the fence just waiting to be swayed to do so.

The current messaging still hasn’t cracked substantial numbers from other sub-groups such as anti-vaxxers, religious congregations, youths, those who are skeptical because of safety concerns with AstraZeneca, and some healthcare workers.

There is a lot more work to be done if the island is to achieve herd immunity by the winter tourist season.

Looking at the figures for St. Lucia which started vaccinations just after Grenada rolled out its campaign, over twenty six thousand of its citizens have taken their first shot, while seventeen thousand are fully vaccinated having taken the two shots and allowed for two weeks to pass.

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Even with the recent uptick in persons taking their first shot, Grenada is still way behind and vulnerable to community spread of one of the dangerous variants in circulation.

The challenge going forward for the Minister and his minions are how to address the various concerns of different sub-groups of hesitants. The Evangelical congregations are driven by the Bible as it says ‘be in the world but not of the world’ and a deep distrust of the State, while more mainstream traditional religions may have concerns over the contents and process in manufacturing the vaccine.

So having a meeting with eighty religious leaders attempting to sway them to get their congregations to take the vaccine is not a good approach, particularly when political leaders have used them in the recent past for political gains and disregarded their advice after.

It might be more useful for the CMO and his epidemiological team to visit congregations and have intimate dialogue to address specific concerns.

Epidemiologists at SGU and in the diaspora should be co-opted to give detailed explanation of how the AstraZeneca was developed and manufactured to address those with concerns over that vaccine itself.

The focus for younger persons should be on how taking the vaccine would allow them to get back to doing normal activities like liming at their favourite bar, lounge, clubs or restaurant on weekends, how they would be protecting their grandparents, parents and siblings should the island have to face a community spread.

The upcoming sporting events such as international football and cricket should be an opportunity to get younger persons and sports enthusiasts who have not taken the vaccine to do so. Free tickets and hampers could be given out as an incentive to get vaccinated. Another idea could be parties for only those that are fully vaccinated.

The Rhum Runner could be given permission to host vaccinated cruise strictly to persons who can provide proof of having taken the vaccine. The Covid Response Committee and Ministry of Health have to be creative in messaging and actions to get the youths to take the vaccine.

For the group of skeptics and hesitants who are holding out because of safety concerns, adverse effects and instances of breakthrough infections, specifically tailored messaging should be created and disseminated by credible healthcare professionals based locally and in the diaspora to address their concerns.

The leader should give favourable consideration to the suggestion made by one of the leading hoteliers on the island to declare Grenada will only allow fully vaccinated travelers to the island.

If we are demanding that visitors to the island be first fully vaccinated this will strengthen the justification for mandating workers in the hospitality arts, services sector and healthcare providers to be vaccinated.

Clifton Reader, President of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourism Association recently said, ‘with North America moving quickly to vaccinate its population, visitors would want to travel to destinations which have a high vaccine take up’.

Mikael Phillips of Jamaica’s Public Administration and Appropriation Committee pointed out that relaxed measures are in place in jurisdictions such as the Bahamas where there are high levels of vaccinations.

The takeaway here is that messaging must be clinically targeted to specific sub-groups under the broad vaccine hesitancy banner. There can’t be a ‘one for all” approach, it would not work just as having messengers who lack credibility with the people who spread the message.

In that regard the leader and minister should refrain from trying to be messengers and leave that up to community opinion makers, respected persons such as community health nurses, teachers, local healthcare professionals and those based in the diaspora, sports personalities, and cultural artists such as calypsonians, singers and other ambassadors of the cultural art form.

There should be a full Press Corp to ramp up messaging to the various groups of hesitants rather than grand-standing on morning and evening television programs spewing ill-conceived and coercive verbal garbage for messaging thus turning people off and hardening their resolve.

Special Correspondent