by Kari Grenade, PhD Regional Economist and Macroeconomic Advisor
Covid-19 has laid bare the fragility of humanity and has shown that no country, no government and no individual on its own can overcome the interlocking crises occasioned by the pandemic.
It has also taught us to appreciate the power of cooperation and the imperative of building bridges of shared vision and common understanding because we all need each other.
We need each other to address the serious issue of vaccine hesitancy, which appears to be ushering in a new era of “vaccine apartheid of sorts” that is emerging in some countries in which the fully vaccinated and the “under-vaccinated” (not boostered) have access to certain amenities, services and even jobs (in some cases) but the unvaccinated do not. The rate at which the situation is unfolding it is possible that in due course even the under-vaccinated could be denied access to certain amenities, services and jobs. This emerging situation has the potential to further exacerbate and perpetuate social and economic exclusion and inequalities.
Imposing vaccine mandates to address vaccine hesitancy could confirm people’s fear that they are losing their rights and freedoms, which could inadvertently result in those who are vaccine hesitant to become more vulnerable to misinformation, reluctant to follow public health protocols and even transition them to the anti-vaxxers’ camp. Any forced requirements by country authorities automatically alter the power dynamics between the state and its citizens, which can erode citizens’ trust in public institutions.
Vaccine mandates by employers that result in termination of unvaccinated employees (those who do not have valid health and/or religious reasons for not being vaccinated) run the risk of exacerbating an already grave situation, if through termination, the ensuing effect is a sea of unemployed unvaccinated people. Even if the threat of termination or termination itself pushes up vaccination rates, productivity rates could fall. If employees feel coerced into being vaccinated out of fear of losing their livelihoods, their dispositions, sentiments and loyalties towards their employers and jobs can change, negatively impacting their productivity and by extension, that of businesses and the economy. National productivity can also be adversely affected in a scenario where vaccinated staff feel burnout and overworked in cases where unvaccinated staff are terminated and new workers cannot be hired overnight.
In an era of global public mistrust of state and state institutions, vaccine mandates run the risk of permanently scarring productivity and economies just as much as Covid-19 itself.
While mandatory vaccinations have been around throughout history and more often than not generally unopposed, what is different this time around is the breakdown of trust between citizens and public institutions. Public health programmes require public trust and consent to be successful.
We all need each other to find “meet-in-the-middle solutions” that will see an acceleration in vaccination rates in the absence of mandates. “Meet-in-the-middle solutions” must of necessity involve genuine, authentic and constant engagement with those who are vaccine hesitant. They must be encouraged, presented with evidence and facts, listened to, not judged, and given time and space to make their decision. Country authorities must do a better job at listening to those who are hesitant to understand the reasons for their hesitancy so that they can deploy targeted interventions, ultimately geared at changing minds towards vaccine acceptance. Surveys administered to ascertain the reasons for vaccine hesitancy can inform more-tailored and direct interventions. Additionally, those that are hesitant need to receive reinforcement from several credible sources to help them make their decisions. Public health messages must be differentiated, taking into account differences in age, gender, education, religion, social class, and political leanings for example. And of course, people need to be convinced that their governments genuinely care about their wellbeing much more than they care about not wanting to expose years of underinvestment and/or neglect of healthcare systems that can easily become overwhelmed by Covid-19 cases (mostly unvaccinated). Scaled-up public health campaigns must be carried out simultaneously with scaled-up spending/investments to fundamentally improve healthcare systems and programmes to restore trust between citizens and the state.
Pertaining to employers/employees; ultimately, employers will have to assess whether to what extent their businesses will be affected should the majority of their unvaccinated staff choose not to be vaccinated and similarly, unvaccinated employees will have to assess their options should the majority of businesses impose vaccine mandates. Above all, both must internalise that they each other and together find “meet-in-the-middle solutions” that minimise risks for both. Some “meet-in-the-middle solutions” can include employers: communicating clearly and often with unvaccinated employees to help them understand how vaccinations make for a safer workplace; granting time off to unvaccinated staff to get vaccinated or tested; allowing staff to work remotely (if feasible); and transferring unvaccinated employees to departments that interface less with the public. Unvaccinated employees must also do their part by getting tested regularly and strictly following the health protocols. Businesses can roll out an “adopt a staff” programme where vaccinated staff engage unvaccinated colleagues for a period of time, in personalised vaccination education to build trust and ultimately change minds towards vaccine acceptance.
As citizens of the world, we also need each other to end vaccine inequity. According to the Global Dashboard for Vaccine Equity, as at 22 December 2021, only 9.59% of persons in low-income countries have been vaccinated with at least one dose, compared to over 66.72% in high-income countries. As stated by the Guardian Newspaper, “every day, for every vaccine delivered as first vaccines in the poorest countries, six times as many doses are being administered as third and booster vaccines in the richest parts of the world” (21 November 2021). While recent dose sharing by some rich countries is welcomed, we all need each other to call for more to be done to boost supply and distribution to urgently address this most vile situation the world finds itself in. For sure, there will be no durable end to the pandemic until enough people around the world are vaccinated against Covid-19 because no one is safe until everyone is safe. As such, collective actions are needed to boost vaccine supply and distribution. Moreover, low-income countries must step up their advocacy for the acceleration of equitable vaccine distribution globally and rich countries must act swiftly to protect people everywhere, as well to reduce the risk of new mutant variants emerging that could elude vaccines for everyone.
As a new year opens, so too is an opportunity to build a new compact for humanity that recognises the challenges of our times require a new kind of compassion, solidarity and collective action. We all need each other because we are indeed stronger together!
Wishing you a new year of health, happiness, equality, resilience, prosperity, togetherness and joy! I urge you to follow all of the health protocols: masking, sanitising, distancing, vaccinating and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. In the context of Covid-19, following all of the health protocols is an act of love — love for self and love for others!