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Home / Opinion / Columns /  The subtle art of getting folks to take another covid vaccine jab

The subtle art of getting folks to take another covid vaccine jab

Photo: AFP

Should Omicron require extra protection from covid, it may well be better to call it a ‘third’ rather than ‘booster’ dose so as to provoke conversations and questions to good effect

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In the next few weeks, health experts will figure out whether existing covid vaccines are good enough to tackle the Omicron variant of the Sars-CoV-2 virus that causes the disease. If, and this is a big if, it is proven that the newly designated variant of concern can evade the immune protection provided by current vaccines, would everyone need to take an updated dose of vaccine? How do we persuade the larger population to take yet another covid shot?

In the next few weeks, health experts will figure out whether existing covid vaccines are good enough to tackle the Omicron variant of the Sars-CoV-2 virus that causes the disease. If, and this is a big if, it is proven that the newly designated variant of concern can evade the immune protection provided by current vaccines, would everyone need to take an updated dose of vaccine? How do we persuade the larger population to take yet another covid shot?

For the past several months, health experts and policymakers have been telling the world that there is light at the end of the pandemic tunnel for those who are “fully vaccinated". For most formulations, that means two doses of a double-shot regimen. Countries like India have done a good job of vaccinating their intended target audience with at least one dose. But the proportion of people who have taken their second dose in India is less than half of those who have taken their first dose. Such a decline in our vaccination rate was to be expected.

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For the past several months, health experts and policymakers have been telling the world that there is light at the end of the pandemic tunnel for those who are “fully vaccinated". For most formulations, that means two doses of a double-shot regimen. Countries like India have done a good job of vaccinating their intended target audience with at least one dose. But the proportion of people who have taken their second dose in India is less than half of those who have taken their first dose. Such a decline in our vaccination rate was to be expected.

The human brain has a tremendous ability to adapt to any situation, including risky ones. As humans interact with any risk on a sustained basis, the sense of danger associated with that source of risk diminishes with time. Slowly, they start interacting with that source of risk in a more casual manner. This is the reason that experienced employees are found to suffer worse factory accidents than trainees. For nearly two years, the world has been in the grip of a pandemic that doesn’t seem to end. After an initial encounter with fear, risk perceptions began to reduce sharply as the first wave of infections ebbed. It was only the catastrophic second wave that took feelings of risk back to higher levels.

It is easy to motivate people to take corrective or defensive measures when they sense high levels of risk. The tragic outcomes of the second wave did push many fence-sitters to get vaccinated. After that brutal experience earlier this year, people were slowly moving towards normalcy. Seemingly endless months of restrictions left people eager to get their lives-as-usual back, with much exasperation commonly expressed. At this juncture, asking ordinary citizens to be super-vigilant once again is not going to be an easy task in India. More so because cases of infection and death are very low right now. So, getting most citizens to take yet another jab would be a Herculean task. If, after rigorous analysis, our health authorities conclude that existing vaccines are good enough to fight Omicron, there is no cause for worry. We could all go back to shopping malls and theatres with confidence. But what if health authorities find that Omicron is indeed a serious threat and another round of vaccination is the only way to secure our health? What could policymakers do to better prepare the world for such a scenario?

Many patterns of human behaviour are affected by non-conscious cues. The vocabulary we create around an event or object is one such non-conscious cue that impacts our behaviour. For example, calling a road an ‘expressway’ and expecting drivers to drive slowly on it is a bit of a problem. So if another dose of vaccine is required to provide the requisite protection, one could call it either a ‘booster’ dose or ‘third dose’. What terminology will best provide people at large the non-conscious motivation needed to take another dose?

The term ‘booster dose’ evokes a perception of incrementalism. Its use will create the feeling that Omicron is just another variant of the virus and all that is required is a slight addition to the existing protection granted by the previous two doses. When the predominant present mood is to recover our pre-pandemic lives and restriction-free days, the ‘booster’ terminology will not do much to make people more cautious of getting infected. Most people will probably conclude that taking a ‘booster shot’ is optional, just an act of abundant caution.

On the other hand, the term ‘third dose’ will better communicate the need for an additional layer of protection from the covid virus. This term non-consciously generates the feeling that this dose is distinct from the first and second doses. No doubt, the term ‘third dose’ will also stir up more intense social conversations. That is the aim. Many questions will likely be provoked. Why do we need a third dose? Why are the first two doses ineffective against the new variant? Such questions will provide an ideal opportunity for health experts to explain how significant this new variant is, should it turn out to be dangerous. But they should not make the mistakes they did in the early phases of the pandemic.

In the initial phase of covid, there were several cases of inconsistency in expert recommendations. At one point, some experts had said “masks are not required". Soon, they changed their opinion. This kind of vacillation, especially at the highest levels of policymaking, should always be avoided. Humans will always latch onto any message that reassures them that everything is okay and no further action needs to be taken. Once such a message of reassurance is absorbed, it is difficult to move people out of that mindset. So before policymakers jump to issue reassuring statements, they need to carefully examine the likelihood of having to take their words back later.

Getting people to take yet another jab won’t be easy. Policymakers would need to be more innovative in their thinking.

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

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