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A contrarian campaign to vaccinate the planet

7 min
How-To  ✺  Case Studies

How can governments do a better job of persuading people to get vaccinated against COVID? I went through all the best practices I could find, and wrote it up.

How can governments do a better job of persuading people to get vaccinated?

The COVID vaccination drive is a key part of the campaign of the century. So it makes an interesting live case study for anyone interested in designing and running campaigns.

Dive in. Or go directly to the proposals.

* * *

A bloody mess

Three things just collided for me.

Vaccines are a great tool to fight COVID-19. But in countries where vaccines are available, it’s clear the public is still hesitant towards them: just 66.3% of Europe is fully vaccinated as of writing1.

Global COVID vaccination rates as of December 6, from Reuters. Lower income countries have lower rates due to scandalous vaccine inequity. But even in high income countries with widely available vaccines, uptake is lagging.

Now, I can’t pin this on people falling under the sway of conspiracy theorists and misinformation. Nor on stubbornness, nor stupidity. Rather, it’s down to a complex mess of factors, but lack of trust in institutions plays a large role. As Arthur Caplan of the NYU School of Medicine puts it:

Public health in general and vaccination in particular are as much about politics, values, and public trust as they are about science and facts.

Or as the New Zealand Immunisation Advisory Centre says:

Being vaccinated is an act of trust. Trust is built through relationships, reassurance, and connection.

Public trust is a vital resource for a government handling a crisis. Yet vaccine mandates — which our leaders are now considering across Europe — just damage trust further. This sets us up for Big Problems both for COVID (compliance with measures) and its aftermath (social cohesion and political polarisation2).

Let me be clear: everyone has a responsiblity here. Humanity won’t beat the pandemic (whatever that means) without changing our behaviour.

But I’d feel better blaming our failure on individuals if I’d seen governments doing a stellar job of persuading people, and still failing to meet their targets.

How can they do better?

Enter the nurturant parent

In his 2004 book Moral Politics, the linguist George Lakoff offers two different models of managing societies: ‘strict father’ and ‘nurturant parent’. Overwhelmingly, the framework governments have used to fight COVID has been the former. (In some cases, like Austria, abusive bullying strict father.)

It’s time to give the ‘nurturant parent’ model a try. It’s time to stop treating people like idiots. It’s time for a radical shift.

So I took a dive into what governments have been doing around the world to get everyone vaccinated – from New Zealand to India to rural US states – and came up with some suggestions. These could be useful for governments who want to change course in the pandemic. Or for the next crisis.

Quick disclaimers: This post deals with the vaccination roll-out specifically — not governments’ entire COVID strategies. The former has to fit into the latter. And these ideas won’t work everywhere; each country has its own history and cultural quirks. I put them forward in the spirit of ‘see what can be adapted’.

OK, let’s go.


1. Talk like a human

For both governments and healthcare professionals3:

New Zealand campaign posters against COVID. Contrast their tone with the dogmatic, finger-pointing messages in other countries, like the UK.
Instead of saying this... ...try this
The vaccines are safe and effective. The vaccines are safe and effective for almost everyone, based on what we know today5. And we’ve deployed 8 billion worldwide.
The vaccines have no serious side effects. Like all medicines, you might have some side effects. [List common and rare but serious side effects.]
You have a 0.001% chance of having serious side effects. My whole family got vaccinated, my kids and my parents, and they feel fine.
Vaccinated people can’t spread COVID. Vaccinated people are less likely to be contagious.
The vaccines work by giving your cells instructions to build a harmless piece of S protein. Viral vector vaccines place genetic material from the COVID-19 virus into a modified version of a different virus. Vaccines power up your immune system so it can produce its own natural protection.

2. Be insanely transparent

3. Hold monthly town hall meetings for the public

A townhall meeting, online in this case, organised by the government of Ohio. This one specifically targets black Americans, and takes questions from the audience.

4. Motivate through celebration, not focusing on gaps

5. Show your target audiences people like them

6. Take a nuanced view of people who are not yet vaccinated

Recognise that ‘anti vaxxers’ includes a wide variety of people. And tailor your strategy to reach each subgroup.

‘Anti-vaxxer’ subgroup How you could persuade them
People who are concerned about having to miss work due to vaccine side effects, and/or whose employer will not give them paid time off. Call for employers to give time off if requested.
Have to travel to get the vaccine, and have to cover the costs themselves. Make it absurdly easy to get the vaccine; deploy mobile clinics and ride-sharing.
Don’t feel comfortable providing health insurance info, e.g. migrants. Make sure people need to provide as little information as possible to get a shot.
Are open to getting a shot, but who want to wait (this includes many minority groups). Encourage doctors to have those conversations in a non-dogmatic way.

That’s it. 

* * *

A crisis like COVID is opportunity for a reset. A lot of ground can be regained (or lost) in a short time.

We owe it to ourselves to look at how we could be doing it differently. These proposals are a start.

This is a draft, meant for my newsletter subscribers, which I will revisit and update. It was also published by DiEM25.

Think I’m totally wrong, or missing something? Your constructive feedback is welcome: Twitter or email.


1: FWIW, I’m one of them. Also, I’ll set aside the issue of vaccinating children against COVID for the purpose of this post.

2: As I’ve suggested before, in the current environment strict-father actions toward the public will likely foster resentment. People who were nervous about the vaccine, who already didn’t trust institutions, might give in now because they feel they have no choice. But when a slick-tongued disruptor comes along who offers them a ‘fuck you’ button, those people will be more likely to support him.

3: Here’s New Zealand’s recipe for humanised government messaging in a pandemic: open, honest and straightforward communication; distinctive and motivational language; and expressions of care.

4: Per Matt Taibbi, avoid ‘the instinct to armour-plate even unrelated subjects with layer after layer of insistent vaccine dogma’.

5: As The Medical Journal of Australia puts it: “Avoid over-reassuring people about vaccine safety with statements such as ‘the vaccine is safe for people over 50 years’. Early overconfidence in rates of an outcome may also affect trust if data change. Signal the potential for estimates to be updated over time so the public are more ready for change.”


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