Marc Siegel: COVID vaccine push -- mainstream media's condescension, shaming is the absolute wrong approach

Those who decline the vaccine are called 'stupid' or 'dumb' by the mainstream media. This is only making them more entrenched in their decisions

Long before the pandemic started, David Ropeik, one of the top experts in the world on risk communication (and how the media often gets it wrong), had this to say about the ways that people who are resistant to taking vaccines are treated in the media: "when you attack someone’s values, they get defensive…it triggers and instinctive defensiveness that certainly doesn’t change the mind of the vaccine hesitant person." 

"But simply telling people their views are stupid, or even not fully informed will not work," said Brendan Nyhan, political science professor at Dartmouth University…people enjoy lashing out at anti-vaccine folks, it turns into and ‘us versus them’ thing." 

Nyhan has studied vaccine refusal and hesitancy and a landmark study he published in Pediatrics in 2014 concluded, "Attempts to increase concerns about communicable diseases or correct false claims about vaccines may be especially likely to be counterproductive."  

This is why, at a time when we need vaccine compliance more than ever, in the heart of a raging pandemic with a wildly spreading delta variant that the vaccine mostly prevents, it is so disturbing to see blatant attacks and mockery of the vaccine resistant in the media. President Biden directing Facebook to suppress so-called COVID misinformation was one example, which the WSJ editorial board was right to react against.

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Back in March, late night host Jimmel Kimmel attacked Republicans Gov. DeSantis of Florida and Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green as follows:  "But Ron DeSantis isn't the only dope who opposes the (vaccine) passport…None other than Klan Mom herself, Marjorie Taylor Greene, believes there are biblical implications!...How do you reach across the aisle when the other side thinks you have hooves? What a dumb person."

Comments like this may be wrapped in humor and playing to an audience but they certainly don’t engender good feelings or vaccine compliance.

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Throughout social media and on cable television, those who decline the vaccine are called "stupid" or "dumb." This is only making them more entrenched in their decisions. As emergency room physician Dr. Edward Leap wrote in Medpage Today on Wednesday, "We change the minds of our patients, and our loved ones, with compassion and kindness. We only alienate them with disdain. And this is nowhere more true than in the issue of COVID-19 vaccine hesitation." 

By contrast, when CNN anchor Don Lemon said last week of those refusing to be vaccinated against COVID, "if behavior is idiotic and nonsensical, I think that you need to tell people that their behavior is idiotic and nonsensical," he helped no one in terms of moving the needle in the direction of taking the vaccine. 

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But when I interviewed CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky this week on SiriusXM Doctor Radio, I found, by contrast, a compassionate discerning infectious disease specialist who has researched vaccine delivery and strategies, community outreach to underserved communities, who acknowledged that vaccine compliance varies and we have to treat everyone as individuals based on their personal beliefs. She emphasized the role of clergy, physicians, and vaccinated peers as influencers.

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"I just want to recognize that some people are allergic to the mandatory and I don’t want to turn them off either. This may end up being something that is better off being done community by community and I would endorse any way that we can get more people vaccinated to prevent severe disease and death." 

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As a practicing internist who treats patients and administers vaccines every day, I can say that respect, kindness and listening take you a lot farther with people than politicization, derision, and marginalization.

Please recall the great comedy film "A Fish Called Wanda," for a warning that to be taken seriously, above all else, "don’t call me stupid."

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