by Professor Sattar Bawany
Regrettably, the tone of the message by Mr Lawrence Wong, the co-chair of the multi-ministerial task force tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, is not helpful and will not assuage the public distrust of vaccines, and neither will it support the Government’s goal of getting everyone vaccinated as soon as possible.
Overcoming public distrust of the COVID-19 vaccines is a major obstacle to governments’ effort worldwide in persuading enough people to get vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. But why is this so?
The acceptance of COVID-19 vaccines depends on public trust and confidence in the safety and efficacy of vaccines and immunisation, the health system, healthcare professionals, and the wider vaccine research community.
These are all important factors which influence the vaccine decision-making process made by the public. The public trust and confidence are especially important in light of the adverse news reports from other countries of the side effects including fatality experienced by their citizens that have undergone vaccination.
This has regrettably called into question the reliability of the complex safety and efficacy data that form the basis of vaccine policies and approval granted by the Singapore’s Health Sciences Authority (HSA) upon receiving the recommendations of the Ministry of Health’s (MOH) committee of doctors and experts.
We have been in this pandemic for around a year, and the development of COVID-19 vaccines has been on an accelerated timeline (which normally would take years for any vaccine to be developed), hence it is natural for the public to be suspicious of things they don’t know about.
The biggest hurdle our public health officials have to overcome is the primary concern as to whether the vaccines have been appropriately tested for safety and effectiveness before approval been granted to be administered to our citizens.
The public health agencies must work to “immunise” people against misinformation. This could only be accomplished if there is trust; resulting from authentic relationships that build confidence; between the Government and the people. To address the misinformation and low trust, the engagement between the Government and the public must be authentic.
Vaccine hesitancy is a problem of dignity as much as of the abundance of falsehoods. Singaporeans want to have their choices respected and not being dictated and told that they could not choose which vaccines to take.
Furthermore, for vaccine uptake to increase, the public must be inspired through authentic communication and dialogue to protect one another, which regrettably Singapore’s public health agencies, including the multi-ministerial task force, have failed to achieve.
Effective communication and engagement is the remedy towards repairing public trust which is crucial before the vaccination campaign was initiated. The public health agencies should have launched robust public outreach efforts that encourage various communities, including religious groups to address the questions and concerns that these communities may have.
Even if the public trust in the science of the vaccines is impacted, social norms in the communities can go a long way in persuading people to get vaccinated. If individuals believe that all the people they love and care for them think they should get the vaccine, they are more likely to be influenced to get it.
It would be helpful for the multi-ministerial task force to re-examine its communication and engagement strategy with the view to rebuild the trust with the public.