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Vaccine Hesitancy and Bias

The good news this week was that the country’s vaccination program seemed to have shifted to a higher gear with 229,769 doses administered last May 20 — the highest since we began the program in March. National Task Force against COVID-19 chief implementer and vaccine czar Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. has expressed confidence that “we can breach the four million mark” by the end of the month. As of May 20, a total of 3,718,308 doses have been administered nationwide to priority groups: Healthcare workers, senior citizens, and persons with comorbidities.


The bad news is that while this pace is an improvement it is by no means where we want to be. Secretary Galvez himself has admitted that “we are now moving past the crawling stage as we begin to walk.” Well, we need to run. We need to outpace this virus so we can protect the health and life of our people and begin the process of fully reopening our economy. While vaccine supply has been a concern, complicating our drive to vaccinate the population is the hesitation of many to get vaccinated and the bias of some towards a particular brand.


A study by Octa Research early this year showed that only 19 percent of Filipinos were willing to be vaccinated. The same study indicated that vaccines from US are more trusted compared to those coming from China, which makes up the bulk of our available supply. Furthermore, a nationwide survey by the Social Weather Station (SWS) found that while 51 percent of adult Filipinos are confident about the government’s evaluation of the COVID-19 vaccines, about 2/3 of respondents are either uncertain or unwilling to get vaccinated. Only 32 percent are willing to get the jabs.


The World Health Organization (WHO) has defined vaccine hesitancy as “the delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite availability of vaccine services.” Vaccine bias simply refers to people’s partiality towards a particular brand and refusal to take what it available. The former is the bigger problem, I think. I have written about this when we started rolling out the vaccine program. I wrote then that we need to get ahead of this problem and implement an aggressive information campaign. I feared that given our easy access to social media, misinformation will abound.


The SWS survey is actually very instructive as to the reason why people remain hesitant. Almost 40 percent of those who are uncertain about getting vaccinated said that they fear the possible side effects while 21 percent said vaccines are not safe and effective. The government needs to get the information out there that vaccines are safe and that side effects should not be feared because they are actually signs that the vaccines are working. But the government needs to be more effective in its information campaign.


Social media platforms are inundated with stories of alleged deaths and sickness resulting from getting the jabs. And a lot of people believe these stories shared on Facebook and other channels. We need to get trusted and influential personalities to endorse the vaccines so people can see that they are safe. We need easy-to-understand campaign materials showing the risk-benefit analysis of getting a vaccine as opposed to remaining vulnerable to the deadly disease. We are not sure if those deaths are indeed vaccine related but we are absolutely certain that the almost 20,000 deaths were caused by COVID-19.

More importantly, I really hope that the private sector can be more involved in the rollout so we can start vaccinating our economic front liners. While I continue to believe that we need to prioritize healthcare workers, senior citizens and those with comorbidities, we should immediately start vaccinating workers in high traffic economic activities (markets, groceries, restaurants, malls, etc.). I think very few among our workers will show hesitancy because they know they need the vaccines for protection and for the resumption of livelihoods.


Another interesting facet of the SWS survey is the data that willingness to be vaccinated seems to be highest in Metro Manila (41 percent) and among college graduates (50 percent). This should give the government’s information drive the right focus and messaging for a campaign to reduce vaccine hesitancy and bias.


Following health protocols and other guidelines will help us defeat the coronavirus but there is no doubt that an efficient program to get people vaccinated will turn the tide for us. We need our people to get vaccinated but we cannot force it on them. We cannot substitute our thinking for theirs. With accurate information, they should be able to reach the right decision on their own.



Manila Bulletin/Views/MannyVillar