Arvanitakis on education: Confronting vaccine hesitancy and building trust

| May 22, 2021

One of the most controversial aspects of the Morrison/Frydenberg 2021 budget is the declaration that Australia’s borders will stay closed until sometime in 2022 leading to us being described as a hermit nation.

The decision to purse a closed Australia is no doubt a result of the Morrison Government gleaning the popularity of state border closures highlighted in recent state elections, and recent polling shows they have captured public sentiment.

Just how sensitive Australians are about this was highlighted when Virgin Airlines CEO, Jayne Hrdlicka, commented that the borders should reopen sooner as we must find a way to live with the virus and accept “some people may die.”

Writing in the Herald, Waleed Aly highlighted the outrage that followed:

… “No one wants to die to save Virgin” roared one headline. The Prime Minister found it “very difficult to have any truck with what was said”.

If we look below the headlines, what we see at the core of Australians embracing the hermit kingdom mentality is a failed vaccine program partially driven by a rise in vaccine hesitancy. As I have written here before, central to vaccine hesitancy is declining levels of trust in governments and expert institutions including universities.

How do we respond?

While an advertising campaign is being touted, simply putting people in front of a camera – especially politicians – to advocate for the benefits of the vaccine does not work.

Furthermore, while we can focus on the need to promote vaccines, we must recognise that a global pandemic is only one of the challenges confronting our society with expertise across science, technology and the humanities fundamental in delivering solutions.

Consequently, there needs to be a broader strategy of building trust in science, and it is here the university sector must lead. Here are four strategies we can employ if we are, as educators and researcher, to build trust that acknowledge we are at least partially to blame for the challenes we confront.

1 – Learning to communicate

As Australia’s former Chief Scientist outlined, much of academic writing is indecipherable.  Within academia, there seems to be an inability to understand there is a difference between simplicity (or generalisation) and simplification (that is, ensuring the language we adopt is accessible and what we are saying is relevant to people’s everyday lives). We seem to take pride in making our explanations complex and incomprehensible.

Scientific communication is something that needs to be at the core of all programs we teach. This cannot be abstract but grounded in the reality of everyday experiences and as such, it must be meaningful, relevant, personal and address misinformation.

2 – Brave spaces: having conversations that matter

As Ariel Bogle highlighted in the ABC podcast series, Click Sick, many of us are not skilled in having conversations with those that we disagree with. While Bogle’s focus was on conspiracy theories, the lessons are much broader.

The abovementioned ‘scientific communication’ we teach our students must include the ability to have conversations with those they disagree with. This needs to include understanding why people are hesitant, not ‘sneering’ at what we may consider ludicrous and finding nuanced ways to respond and close the chasm.

Previously I have described these as ‘brave spaces’ and we must accept that such conversations are often challenging and uncomfortable. This will arm our students to be advocates for vaccines specifically and science more generally.

3 – Supporting our health professionals with their work in hard-to-reach communities

Health professionals are amongst the most trusted in our society. These include doctors, nurses, pharmacists and allied health practitioners. They are embedded in each and every community across Australia. These individuals are best placed to raise the issue of vaccine and respond to any hesitancy.

The challenge is that this takes time: something that most of them do not have. Universities are uniquely placed to provide both resources and support to the professionals as well as assist in advocacy efforts to government to ensure that they adequately supported (including financially).

At my own university, our Dean of Medicine has been at the forefront of advocating for place-based health professionals. It is something that the sector must continue to lead on.

4 – Creatively responding to misinformation

Directly responding to misinformation does not always work. In a world of alterative facts, post-truth and fake-news, one fact-based claim is always countered. Trying to respond to each and every piece of misinformation is the equivalent of ‘whack-a-mole’: by the time you respond to one piece of misinformation, another appears.

What was learnt during the AIDS pandemic was that we need to arm those most affected with the ability to share information and respond to misinformation – and again, while our health professionals are best placed to do so, there are other community leaders embedded in vulnerable communities.

We have seen creative responses from Tik Tok videos, memes and information campaigns via organisations like Canada’s @scienceupfirst. It is here our science communications efforts must combine with the humanities if it is to be effective.

The only long-term solution for vaccine hesitancy is the rebuilding of trust. To do this, we must take a view that we as educators are also to blame for the rise of mistrust – and we must take ownership and respond accordingly.