How to Talk to Your Loved Ones About the COVID-19 Vaccines

Here’s how to have productive conversations with family members who are hesitant to get vaccinated.

As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout continues in Canada, more and more people are starting to sign up, line up, and pull their sleeves up for one of the four Health Canada-approved shots.

While many are jumping at the chance to be vaccinated, there are some who are vaccine-hesitant—they’re not necessarily anti-vax, but have fears and questions that may lead to them delaying their vaccination, or avoiding it altogether. “You have your hardcore anti-vaxxers on one side, and then those who are comfortable with every vaccine on the other side,” says Sabina Vohra-Miller, a clinical pharmacologist, the co-founder of the South Asian Health Network and the founder of Unambiguous Science. “It’s those in the middle, and it’s a fairly wide middle, where vaccine hesitancy occurs.” This could manifest in a number of ways like anxiety or fear about one specific vaccine, or concerns over vaccine safety.

According to Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, about 10 percent of the population will refuse to be vaccinated and there’s little that will change their mind while an additional 20 percent of Canadians don’t currently want the shot but could be persuaded. While getting more people vaccinated will lead to herd immunity and the end of the pandemic, there’s also personal stake in all of this—how can you ensure that your loved ones will be vaccinated and protected against COVID-19?

We spoke to Vohra-Miller about how to talk to your friends, family and loved ones about getting the COVID-19 vaccines.

(Related: This Is What It’s Like Getting the COVID Vaccine)

Don’t dismiss fears

The first thing to keep in mind when approaching a loved one who’s hesitant about being vaccinated is that dismissing their fears isn’t going to help. They are already trusting you by confiding in you and talking to you about their fears. Being dismissive won’t instill confidence or lead to a discussion, it might just make them decide that they can’t talk to you anymore. “Starting by saying, ‘no you’re wrong,’ that has never, ever changed anyone’s opinion,” says Vohra-Miller.

A lot of times, fear comes from a totally valid place, like a prior negative experience or a community’s history with medical injustice. This is especially true for Black and Indigenous people, and people of colour (BIPOC) who routinely experience discrimination in healthcare. According to the Canadian Medical Association Journal, racism in the Canadian health care system is endemic. For racialized people, vaccine hesitancy is based on specific concerns and a long history of medical racism, such as medical bias towards Black patients.

“We need to recognize, empathize and validate their feelings of these anxieties and fears.” Says Vohra-Miller. “Blaming, shaming, or judging people for having these concerns won’t work.”

(Related: 3 Tips to Help You Cope With Covid-19 Anxiety)

Ask them to be specific about their concerns

This will not only give you a sense of what you need to address but can help in your search for resources to point them to. It’s hard to know what myths you need to bust if you don’t know what myths your loved ones believe. According to Vohra-Miller, being able to “dissect misinformation together and try to point them towards something more credible” can go a long way in building trust and changing minds.

Having your loved one express their concerns can also make the fear a bit less scary. “It might feel overwhelming to them when it’s in their head, but when they actually verbalize it, they might realize that perhaps it’s not that big of a deal,” says Vohra-Miller.

(Related: What Working on the Frontlines of COVID-19 Has Been Like)

Don’t underestimate trust

Leveraging trust, especially in your own community, can be one of the most useful tools when talking to someone who is vaccine-hesitant. Connecting them with a trusted community member, friend or even another family member is a great way to change minds. “If you can connect the person who is anxious to someone they trust, they’re a lot more likely to have trust in the vaccine,” Vohra-Miller says.

Their family doctor, or someone at a community health centre or their pharmacist could be on this list. “They’re up-to-date with the information and if they don’t have the answer, they can look it up,” says Vohra-Miller.

(Related: 8 Women Share the Impact the Pandemic Has Had on Their Mental Health)

Look for accessible sources

While a lot of us are deciphering scientific jargon and trying to make sense of what “mRNA” means, those who aren’t fluent in English and French might have even more trouble understanding vaccine information. “Not everyone gets their information from traditional sources—in fact, they might be getting it on WhatsApp or elsewhere online,” says Vohra-Miller. “We need to be mindful of that and we need to be targeting a wide variety of media [and audiences].”

Outreach to groups that can’t access traditional sources of information needs to be better—an October 2020 Stats Can report found that COVID-19 mortality rates were significantly higher in neighbourhoods with a higher proportion of “visible minorities.” Some public health bodies are providing information in a number of languages (Toronto Public Health, for example, has information available in about 40 languages).

If you live in a community where there isn’t accessible public information, or if it isn’t available in your loved one’s language, see if there are any community-based organizations who are sharing trustworthy information. For example, Vohra-Miller and the South Asian Health Network are organizing a number of educational townhalls that are in English and South Asian languages, she says. These community initiatives have helped raised awareness about things like mask wearing and vaccines.

(Related: 6 Hand Sanitizers, Available in Canada, Health Editors Love)

Be patient, and remember it might take more than one conversation

“I think what we have to do is have these little mini conversations, so that you’re slowly trying to influence behaviour and not overwhelm with information,” says Vohra-Miller. “If you’re having this one combative discussion, people are going to just become more grounded in their beliefs.” While having multiple conversations might be time-consuming, it is ultimately worth it if it means your loved ones get immunized and can keep themselves (and their communities) safe.

Now that you know how to talk to your loved ones about the COVID-19 vaccines, this is what you need to know about the coronavirus variants.

Originally Published in Best Health Canada