Vaccine Resistance and Public Health Messaging
May 6, 2021
by Jonathan Imbody
The Washington Post recently published my commentary below in response to an article (“‘I’m still a zero’: Vaccine-resistant Republicans warn that their skepticism is worsening”) that examined the vaccine hesitancy of conservatives. I aimed simply to explain a divergent point of view that many Americans hold about COVID vaccines—one that rejects the messages of U.S. public health agency officials:
“Conservatives who value limited government, federalism and checks on individual power will disdain what they view as vaccination propaganda from partisan politicians who have used the pandemic as a blatant power grab. Trump supporters won’t abide vaccination rhetoric of public health officials such as Anthony S. Fauci, who publicly dissed President Donald Trump.
“Conservatives also respect conscience convictions. While I have received the Moderna vaccine and have written of ethical and practical reasons for taking the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, I understand the apprehensions of conservative colleagues who voice concerns about the use of a fetal cell line in testing, the new mRNA technology and the lack of longitudinal studies.
“Conservative vaccine resisters view the ‘impending doom‘ pandemic rhetoric of this administration as alarmist, manipulative, condescending and coercive. Some, however, may still respond to respectful, common-sense messages from trusted faith leaders and local health experts who can reasonably and transparently lay out the risks of coronavirus vaccination vs. infection.”
Public health officials no doubt have been learning what private practice doctors have known for a long time: Patients don’t always just take your orders. You have to first treat them as dignified individuals with free agency, then appeal to their reason and self-interest. If you work to stop smoking, you will add years to your life and make sure your children have a father as they grow up. If you step up the exercise and trim down the desserts, you’ll help avoid diabetes and a lifetime of insulin injections.
Physicians of faith especially realize that healthcare is so much more than analyzing data and prescribing medications. As a person of faith who recognizes the image of God in every single individual, you see your patients as human beings of inestimable value—not as mere appointments on your daily schedule or data points in your statistical analyses.
Communication and relationship are central to healthcare. Healthcare professionals who appreciate this and treat their patients accordingly can expect to see greater receptivity to prescribed courses of action and better health outcomes in their patients.
Public health officials who may have spent most of their careers in the lab, in academia or in government agencies, with limited contact with individual patients, would do well to seek the counsel of health professionals who see patients on a daily basis. Learning how people think and what motivates them to respond is key to any public health endeavor.
Meanwhile, we remain thankful for the intrepid work of so many dedicated public health officials, who have faced a tremendously challenging learning curve with this pandemic as well as an extremely challenging social environment in which to get their messages across to the public. Their service and provision of evidence and solutions has doubtless saved many lives.
When the best efforts of public health officials and national public health messages fail to connect with the public, it falls to doctors and other health professionals in local communities—those who have personal relationships with their patients—to provide trustworthy and respectful communication to save even more lives.