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21 October 2021

Vaccine mandates won’t solve our anti-vaxxer problem

Without tackling the real causes of vaccine hesitancy, we’re only creating a bigger challenge for the future.

By Sarah Manavis

Over the last several months, when I’ve opened up Facebook, I’ve almost always been met with the same post. It will be from a girl I knew at my American high school who, after suffering a rare side-effect from a routine procedure last year, has bought into an increasing number of conspiracy theories. Most of her recent posts have been (no surprise) regurgitating anti-vax ideas about the Covid vaccines, using pseudoscientific terms like “neurological injury” to sway people from getting them. Of late, she has been getting into fights with other school friends about the vaccine mandates that have been introduced across the US. 

In early September, President Biden announced that companies with more than 100 employees would have to ask their staff to get fully vaccinated by the end of October. Employees who didn’t comply would be forced to do frequent, time-consuming tests. Some companies took it a step further and said that unvaxxed employees would simply lose their jobs. In the UK, vaccine mandates currently only exist for certain workers, such as NHS and care home staff, but employers are starting to find creative ways to encourage vaccinations. Pimlico (formerly Pimlico Plumbers), for example, has said it will only recruit new hires from the pool of people who have already had two doses.  

Initially, there was outcry that vaccine mandates were a pointless measure – something that sounded useful in theory, but in practice wouldn’t actually get many vaccine-hesitant people jabbed. But so far in the US, this tactic is working, with some companies reporting that their staff vaccination rates jumped from 50 per cent to 90 per cent after threatening contracts would be terminated if they didn’t get the vaccine. And with the deadline to get vaccinated now approaching, headlines have started pouring in about the repercussions for those who refuse, with high-profile journalists, sportspeople and presenters giving up seven-figure salaries in order to stay unvaccinated. 

You would think, if you weren’t an anti-vaxxer, that all of this looks promising. Vaccine mandates are clearly doing what they set out to: increase the vaccinated population. But this shows an incomplete picture. What’s lost in the good news about increasing vaccination rates is the problems we create for ourselves further down the line, and the false sense of solving the problem that will only exacerbate public health issues for years (if not decades) to come.

The biggest problem driving vaccine hesitancy is misinformation about vaccines. This is not new – vaccine hesitancy was already a major problem before this particular pandemic began. In 2019, vaccination rates among children in the UK (for longstanding vaccines, such as the MMR) dropped for the fifth year in a row. Once the first coronavirus vaccine was announced, health officials began to worry about how they would convince enough of the population to get jabbed with something so new. The anti-vax movement is stronger than ever. We know all this. We have talked about it extensively for years. 

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We also know that telling misinformation-believing vaccine hesitants that what they are putting their faith in is nonsense, that it’s all laughably incorrect, and that they are a danger to society by following that advice, doesn’t work. Speak to anti-vaxxers and you’ll find that they sincerely believe they are saving lives. When I see these posts from my old school friend – or most people who post anti-vax content online – they are not motivated by gleeful dissent of a norm. They are motivated by fear, and a belief that they are bravely saving others from succumbing to a terrible fate. Ostracisation and mockery only deepens their sense of righteousness. 

While the positive impact of increasing vaccination rates shouldn’t be ignored, we have to look beyond the immediate results and think about the longevity of such a policy. There are of course political arguments against it, that giving the state this much power over our bodies, where people are effectively forced to get a vaccine in order to stay employed during a recession, violates personal rights. But even putting these (valid) arguments aside, and thinking practically, does this solve vaccine hesitancy and the anti-vax movement in a meaningful way? 

Vaccine mandates may create a temporary uplift in current vaccination rates, but what about vaccinations in the future? Negative feelings towards the state are only growing, even outside of full-blown conspiracy theorist circles. Anti-vaxxers will use this as fuel for growing their already rapidly expanding group of followers. For those who were sitting on the fence – who weren’t full anti-vaxxers, but had some concerns that were keeping them unvaccinated – a mandate might move them to get vaccinated now, but what about next time? Will similar mandates be required for boosters? What happens if those rates don’t increase high enough to ever reach herd immunity? What happens when immunity starts to wear off? Should the state have the power to do this indefinitely? 

The concern is not around people like well-paid American football coaches or tennis superstar Novak Djokovic, who will survive if they lose their million-dollar jobs. The problem is the hesitant schoolteachers, office workers and healthcare staff who are not being given the interventionist care they need to understand that their information is wrong. Vaccine hesitancy is on the rise generally, and mandates for Covid will only provide a false sense of security if the core of anti-vax sentiment – misinformation – is not aggressively and effectively addressed, and if deradicalisation is not at the forefront of public health officials’ minds.

Vaccine mandates may look increasingly attractive as a means of getting more people vaccinated as Covid deaths spike in the UK, particularly after a plateau in the rate of vaccination since the summer. But it is an illusion to think that mandates will solve vaccine hesitancy. By focusing on mandates while failing to funnel resources into reversing what drives vaccine misinformation, resentment (and resistance) to state intervention will grow stronger – all while a fleeting sense of “this is working” lulls government bodies into avoiding the actual problem.

[See also: How Covid-19 vaccines have dramatically reduced deaths]

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