A Toronto doctor shared her advice for talking to anti-vaxxers ahead of the holidays
With so much talk about the number of forthcoming COVID-19 vaccines lately, it's inevitable that there may be some uncomfortable conversations happening between those who are happy about the arrival of the immunization and members of the anti-vaxxer camp.
Though over the holidays, we may not be attending the large dinners and other gatherings where these types of conversations might take place — because we've all got that one family member — conspiracy theories, such as those about microchips in inoculations, tend to flourish online more than anywhere else.
Thankfully, one Toronto epidemiologist and respiratory virus expert has provided some helpful step-by-step advice for breaching the topic with an anti-vaxxer who you may know.
Dr. Maria Sundaram shared her guidance on Twitter this week in a thread that got a heck of a lot of engagement due to how useful it proved to be.
How to talk with vaccine-hesitant people: a thread for epidemiologists & humans in general, on what the research suggests, and what has worked for me in the past.— Maria Sundaram, PhD (@mariasundaram) December 7, 2020
"Start by acknowledging the person's individual fears & concerns about vaccines," the begins. "Ultimately, many of these are things we share, otherwise we wouldn't do clinical trials to assess safety and effectiveness."
She then goes on to recommend finding some common ground, such as the fact that those getting vaccines are worried about the health of themselves and their loved ones — and those opposed to them are as well, or else they wouldn't be fighting against them so fervently.
And, just the fact that you're both human: perhaps you're both parents, both live in the same neighbourhood, both have the same taste in some art form or another, or are both sick and tired of the pandemic.
"Commiseration is a balm. You can both feel fulfilled by this convo," she writes.
2. Acknowledge a common goal too. If the reason they don't want a vaccine is that they're worried about their health outcomes or their child's health outcomes--ding ding ding, that's common ground. You also want good health outcomes for them! https://t.co/gxsIf0xRv8— Maria Sundaram, PhD (@mariasundaram) December 7, 2020
She also encourages a certain level of tact in the conversation, like taking breaks if things get too heated, employing humour (if the time and approach is right), validating their concerns, and avoiding being "a science robot feeding information into an empty vessel — that's not how people work."
"I talk about my own life and my own choices a lot ('here's what I would do')," she proposes instead. "Address individual concerns... respond directly and actually answer their questions."
Importantly, if you're not an expert and you don't know something, don't pretend to just to sway them, or it will only spread misinformation and potentially push them further away.
5a. Be honest! If you don't know, say, "oh, that's a very good question. I don't know off the top of my head, but let me look into it and get back to you." Do👏not👏pretend👏to👏know👏if👏you👏don't👏! Validate their questions as being similar to ones you ask in your research.— Maria Sundaram, PhD (@mariasundaram) December 7, 2020
She also, very aptly, says to take into consideration why someone might be distrusting of big pharma or the system: "If they are a member of an underserved community, I think it's only fair to acknowledge that they may have a right to distrust public health authorities and white male physicians," she states.
And, you may come to the realization that in some cases, the conversation is more of a confrontation and the strength of belief in differing viewpoints makes the interaction pointless to pursue:
"Make sure you're communicating with people who have a real interest. In my house we have a saying: 'My mind is made up, don't confuse me with the facts.' If you're talking to a person with this mindset, you may not be able to change their mind. That's OK. Be kind & let it go."
7. Take breaks!! Good communication with folks you don't see eye-to-eye with can be tiring, because it requires a TON of empathy. Take breaks and always, always, always be kind. (To others AND to yourself.)— Maria Sundaram, PhD (@mariasundaram) December 7, 2020
Though some online have called the instructions a little patronizing — "stop presuming people with valid concerns are morons," one user responded — they are pretty advantageous tips to use in any interaction with someone in your life who you have opposing beliefs with, which is an interaction perhaps more likely to come up this year than any other with the prevalence of anti-mask and other such sentiments.
Dr. Sundaram talks of making sure you have empathy and kindness in these types of tough talks, but one word she fails to mention is respect; even if you don't necessarily respect someone's belief or think it is ridiculous, you should still respect the person themselves and their capacity to learn and make their own decisions.
But, there's still certainly no harm in trying to convince them of the facts, if you go about it the right way.
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