Vaccine hesitancy is not a just a Third World problem. The phenomenon is troubling Western societies too. The problem is so widespread that governments are forced to offer incentives in cash and kind just to draw people to vaccination centres.
Governments in many countries are not just fighting public indifference and in some cases outright hostility against vaccines, they are also facing disinformation campaigns by educated citizens on social media against inoculation.
In United States, where vaccine targets are short by millions, there is a growing disparity by ethnicity and regions despite 157 million people taking the jabs. The pace of vaccination has slowed down considerably and a vast number of people who were hit by the pandemic remain unvaccinated. The slow pace is blamed on hesitancy and disinformation.
For example, Joseph Mercola, a doctor in Florida wrote in an article saying vaccines are “a medical fraud”. His article reached around 400,000 people on Facebook and has been translated in Polish and Spanish languages.
In Greece on Saturday, police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse a crowd of 4,000 citizens opposing mandatory vaccination. In recent days, tens of thousands of people protested against Covid-19 restrictions in France and Italy.
This is a big challenge for Western nations where the rapid spread of Delta variant has necessitated faster vaccine coverage.
Countering the propaganda
These countries have no option but to effectively counter propaganda against vaccines. Their ability to crack down against such disinformation is restricted by free speech laws but health experts and epidemiologists must find ways to inform people about the benefits of vaccination.
The spread of Delta variant is leading to outbreaks in several countries and the only way to prevent surges is widening and speeding up vaccine coverage. Unfortunately, the hesitancy is not limited to the less educated or among those who do not have access to reliable information.
Even well educated people fall for disinformation amplified by social media, a platform that must do more in weeding out such posts and videos.
Few countries have the legal framework to punish the so called experts who are spreading fear among people on social media. Nations must think about introducing new measures to both create awareness about vaccines and to counter propaganda.
The first step in that direction would be to transparently publicise information about the potential side effects of vaccines.