03 December 2020

The COVID-19 vaccination got off on the wrong foot. Even in Romania

Sorin Butiri

Political leaders, business men, experts in health policies and medics think that the only way to get things back to normal is by developing a vaccine and get the immunization against the new coronavirus for billions of people. In Romania, this objective will fail if the central and local authorities, together with experts in the field, will not develop an effective and quick communication campaign. Their start has already failed in many states due to the conspiracy theories spread on social media and the messages about the distrust in the already developed vaccines. Can something else be done in the strategic communication field so that the vaccination campaign against SARS Cov-2 to be a success?

Image source: Mediafax

We have the vaccine (more, actually). What’s next?

A COVID-19 vaccine could help us get out of the isolation, end the physical distance and restart our re-creation activities. But this scenario will only work if the population will want to get vaccinated. According to specialists in the field, for the vaccines to actually be effective in the current pandemic, it is necessary for at least 60-70% of the population to be immunized. But, can we reach this threshold?

The results of a survey made by Vaccine Confidence Project and ORB International, in June 2020, show that the resistance to vaccination is extremely high in the countries which managed to avoid the most serious pandemics. Thus, in Switzerland, almost 20% of the respondents stated that they do not want to get vaccinated. In Austria, the vaccination scepticism is almost similar, 18% of those who participated at the survey saying they will refuse vaccination, and in Sweden 31% of the people said they will also refuse to get vaccinated.

In Italy, one of the most affected countries, the percentage of those who refuse the vaccine is 23%.

The survey reveals another interesting thing. The percentage of those who have medium (60%) and high (30) education and should normally get informed by using different information means and that supposedly have the necessary capacity to understand those information are actually the ones to create the majority of people who do not want to get immunization through vaccination. This does not but makes us think that the authorities had an ineffective communication, they have lost the initiative and, why not, they created a communication crisis.

We are in a... trust crisis

This communication crisis which is manifested not only nationally, but also at the European level, comes from the fact that, at the beginning of the pandemic, the experts were saying that the development, testing and procurement of a vaccine will take around 2-3 years. Now, only a few months after that statement, different pharmaceutical companies are announcing that they have already tested and are ready to produce and sell vaccines that have 70 to 80% effectiveness.

Moreover, the high effectiveness of the new vaccine (90%), bigger than the seasonal influenza one (70%), is raising come concerns.

When it comes to Romania, the bad, delayed, sometimes even ambiguous and contradictory communication had let the door open to conspiracy theories and, implicitly, led to the decrease of the national COVID vaccination campaign’s success chances.

Among the conspiracy theories currently spread in Romania (and beyond), we mention:

- the introduction of chips in the human body, along with the vaccine, for population’s mass surveillance;

- the damage of the human DNA and the development of irreversible gene mutation.

Furthermore, there are talks on social media indicating a distrust condition caused by the lack of information. Hereof, some people want to see the effects of the vaccines on other people, thinking that this is how they will be convinced about the new vaccine’s safety and make a decision about immunization.

Communication, communication, communication. But not just any communication...

We are living in the era of digitalization and connectivity, 24 hours a day, and the information is vital not just for the business men and politicians, but for each citizen. Maybe we are not interested in what party won the elections or if there was any disaster in another corner of the world, but we are interested in how the weather will be tomorrow, what are roads were closed or what air lines have interrupted their flights. In the era of 4G and 5G communications, information and disinformation can be spread around the world so quickly. The silence in communication or a communication that has no message leads to anxiety and, then, scepticism.

As for Romania, more than 38% of the respondents of a survey have stated that they would not get a COVID-19 vaccine if such a treatment would be available in the following period. The survey confirms the anti-vaccine tendency manifested in the last years, which led to the emergence of a measles outbreak.

Also, 30% of the people said they would wait some time and would only get a vaccine if they would hear or see that the people who got such a treatment do not have any issues, 21,8% stated they would get a vaccine and 8% said they would accept if they would receive more explanations about the used vaccines. This survey proves the statements of the COVID-19 vaccine campaign’s coordination, lieutenant-colonel and doctor Valeriu Gheorghita, who said that vaccination will be free and voluntary, therefore each citizen must get enough correct data from safe and trustable sources before making a decision about immunization.

The national COVID-19 vaccination strategy could be adopted this week (December 3rd) by the Supreme Council of National Defence. But the mentioned strategy will be implemented through common action plans or for each involved institution. One of these plans must involve a national strategic communication.

The strategic communication strategy should start soon in order to maintain the information initiative and effectively combat the conspiracy theories and false messages. However, there is also the possibility to recover the initiative within the strategic communication campaign if some principles specific to crisis communication are followed:

- establishing a strong relation with the population. For that to happen, the authorities must use all communication means to send strong messages, based on fact which can be verified through specific studies or other valuable scientific documents;

-the messages must be elaborated so that the public to actually understand it and to eliminate any “communication barriers”. Messages must be complete and real, precise and clear. Lacking any of these characteristics could lead to the emergence of rumours which will complete the information with speculations, estimations and suspicions generated by a bad communication.

-the tone of the messages must be calming, peaceful and adapted to media and population’s expectations. As for the media, the speech must lack arrogance and superiority and, not least, be adapted to the targeted audience.

When it comes to the targeted audience, there are three big groups:

- those who have already decided that they will get immunized, but they want additional information on the procedures they must follow (the necessary documents, place and time they can get immunized etc.);

-the undecided ones, who need additional information to make a decision or they need close people to confirm the effectiveness of the vaccine and the side-effects;

-those who do not want to get immunized and they will not do it because, as the undecided ones, they lack information or they belong to a religious, ethnic group which forbids them to do that.

Given the results of the survey conducted in Romania, the priority groups that could represent a success would be those who want to see the results of the vaccine in other people (30%), as well as those who want more information to be vaccinated (8%). Along with those who have already made a decision in favour of immunization (21.8%), the immunization of 59.8% of the Romanian population would be successful.

The voice of communicators is very important. They must have the expertise and authority to meet the expectations of the general public. From this perspective, we believe that politicians should take a step back and let well-known experts in the field of medical and medical research formulate messages that convey the necessary information to the population, create trust and support for immunization against COVID-19. In addition to these spokespersons, the strategic communication community (that exists nationally) should involve as well leaders of communities, religious leaders and others (influencers, vloggers, bloggers, etc.) They would get to the eyes and ears of all those connected to the latest means of communication in virtual space.

Information, disinformation – what do we choose?

The plethora of information, some false or inaccurate, about the virus, its origin and effects, as well as measures taken by the authorities to combat the pandemic, reduces people's chances of finding credible sources and the advice they need.

In the EU, but also in the rest of the world, coordinated messages of misinformation are being sent, which seek to position vulnerable minorities as the cause of the pandemic and to fuel mistrust in the ability of state institutions to provide effective responses.

To combat misinformation, the EU has encouraged online platforms to help combat false news and other attempts to spread misinformation by eliminating illegal or false content. As a result, more than 3.4 million suspicious Twitter accounts of coronavirus discussions have been suspended since the beginning of the pandemic.

On the online platform that will be dedicated to the COVID vaccination campaign, it is necessary to create a space where citizens have access to secure, verifiable information on health. This is how links can be introduced to official World Health Organization websites, to the EU page dedicated to the new coronavirus or to specialized works on vaccination.

The involvement of the National Defence Ministry – a controversial topic

The Armed Forces continues to be the institution the Romanians have the highest trust level in (64,1%). This is also the reason why is it necessary to be cautious when using the MoND military.

One of the already presented disinformation topics is connected to the MoND’s involvement in population’s vaccination, which was compared to a dictatorship. Titles such as “The Armed Forces will be used to vaccinate the population against the SARS CoV-2 virus” are not but presented a distorted reality, which decreases people’s trust in the military.

The public relations office of the Ministry of National Defence should be more actively involved in counteracting this "half-true" news.

The decision made so far to use the Ministry of Defence in the management of the central depot, as well as the six regional depots, wherefrom it will be distributed to local fixed and mobile vaccination centers, is a realistic and correct approach. The involvement of military doctors in immunizing the population could only be done if the number of doctors in fixed and mobile centers and family doctors would not be enough to administer the doses of vaccine received from the EU.

If the authorities will not get back the people’s trust, the financial, human and material efforts spent to get the Pfizer vaccine (which will be used in Romania) will not lead to the expected results.

Translated by Andreea Soare