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India is still reeling under the ravages of its second wave of the covid pandemic. Can any good come of all this suffering?

One behaviour that was noticed as the horrors of the second wave peaked was that people were desperately rushing to vaccination centres. Unfortunately, the shortage of vaccines prevented authorities from taking advantage of this rush to get vaccinated. Can the catastrophic experiences of the past month or so be used to hasten India’s drive to vaccinate at least 70% of its population?

With strict lockdowns in large parts of the country, this wave could perhaps be brought under control in a matter of weeks. Soon, incessant reports on the traumatic effects of the pandemic will dwindle. This could reduce the eagerness to get vaccinated. The vaccination programme could suffer for another reason. While older and more vulnerable segments of the population have been getting their jabs, enthusiasm among the younger lot may be influenced by initial assessments in 2020 that covid does not affect them quite as much. Globally, and in India too, overconfidence has been observed among the youth over a falsely presumed invulnerability. The persuasion strategies that drove India’s elders to vaccination centres might not be adequate to persuade younger generations to go get vaccinated.

Two key factors, fear and vaccine scarcity, created the rush for vaccination after the second wave’s onset. Fear is a natural human emotion. It occurs in response to situations where we may be in danger or at risk of some harm. This is part of our body’s alarm system. Fear guides the brain’s fight-or-flight mechanism and keeps us better prepared for peril. If so, how do we intelligently re-generate the emotion evoked by the second wave and activate the individual’s inner drive to seek security against infection?

There is a widespread belief that playing up the large number of those who have been affected by the pandemic will persuade people to get vaccinated. From this perspective of public policy, one might argue that the scale of a response to a tragedy should be proportional to its magnitude. However, recent behavioural research by Paul Slovic and others casts doubt on this crucial assumption. Many people do not understand large numbers. Indeed, large numbers have been found to lack meaning and are underweighted in decisions. According to Robert Jay Lifton, an American psychiatrist, a behaviourial phenomenon called ‘psychic numbing’ often means that the more people die, the less we care. As the number of those affected by the pandemic rises, and as newspaper articles and social media posts on the ineptitude of authorities abound, people at large could be increasingly less bothered by the pandemic; numbers fail to trigger the emotions necessary to generate appropriate action.

In the early part of the pandemic, the focus was on educating the masses on new behaviours they needed to adopt to protect themselves from the virus. These campaigns did not focus on the possible consequences of infection. It was largely the second wave that brought the tragic impact of the pandemic to the doorsteps of most middle- and upper middle-class families in India. Many people in this segment lost a dear one to covid, or know someone who did. Everyone has at least one sad story to tell about how helpless and scared they felt in the past few weeks. Such personal experiences could make people relive their fears of the pandemic. As Mother Teresa famously said, “If I look at the mass, I will never act; if I look at one, I will." This non-rational arithmetic of compassion could well be used to guide future vaccination strategies.

So far, most of the communication around the pandemic has comprised graphic images. These inanimate pictures do not activate the brain’s mirror neurons that are crucial for empathy generation. Yet, evocative photographs can generate the required emotions much more powerfully than even thousands of words can. Raghu Rai’s photograph of a dead child, for example, captured for posterity the pain of the Bhopal gas tragedy. Likewise, a photograph of the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying face down on a Turkish beach captured the tragedy of the Syrian refugee crisis. In the past few weeks, there were very many evocative images that captured the tragedy of the current pandemic. Snapshots of bodies waiting to be cremated might elicit anger against the authorities. But it may yet not move people to get vaccinated. But images of youngsters struggling to cope with covid could re-activate the neural networks of fear in their brains and goad them into action.

The central government was criticized for vaccine shortages during the second wave. But this scarcity also pushed people to look for jab opportunities. A scarcity of any kind tends to increase demand. The corollary is also true. There is often little demand for what is easily available. Given this, it may serve a purpose to let perceptions of scarcity persist even after vaccine supplies achieve adequacy. Announcements that imply or seem to convey limitations could work, though, as with election processes that have temporal restrictions but are designed to maximize turnout, jabs should actually be available to everyone. These would subtly increase the perceived task difficulty of vaccination and strengthen the demand for it.

The emotional remnants of the second wave can help energize our vaccination drive. If we have a country that is better immunized as a result, the suffering of the past few weeks would be less difficult to bear.

Biju Dominic is chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics and chairman, FinalMile Consulting

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