Heavy hand could stiffen anti-vaxxers

Vaccine researcher Katie Attwell says trying to tackle vaccine hesitancy by going too hard could backfire. File photo.

HEAVY-handed enforcement of Covid-19 regulations may risk entrenching anti-vaccination views according to research involving vaccine-hesitant people.

In the eastern states police actions have been a focal point for anti-mandate protestors who’ve complained of violent police crackdowns on protests. And when NSW police handing out $349 fines to people using their phones while their cars were parked in long testing queues, the backlash was so widespread police backed down and withdrew almost all the infringements.

UWA associate professor Katie Attwell is currently leading a research team interviewing looking into vaccine hesitancy.

“We’re interviewing vaccine-hesitant people right now about the experience of having mandates in their workplace or mandates in society, and seeing whether those things change their minds,” Dr Attwell says.

The research is in early stages, but anecdotally and from the interviews so far Dr Attwell says: “Resisting being told what to do and resisting heavy-handed policies does seem to be a powerful motivator for a minority, and probably reinforces views they [already] have in that direction”.

People who weren’t yet vaccinated when the mandates kicked in might have had a range of reasons, such as waiting for the new Novavax or waiting until the borders open; “I think the mandate can then become a factor that beds that person down into an oppositional position,” Dr Attwell says. 

“Then there is the social factor: They can become part of movements or groups where those views are reinforced, 

or they enter into conflicts,” getting into arguments with pro-vaccination people, potentially losing friends and falling further in with anti-vaccine movements.

Dr Attwell says “there are public health reasons for both vaccines and masks … both of them are part of our strategy for staying safe as individuals and safe as a state, and not massively overwhelming hospitals, and making sure people with cancer can go and get their treatment.

“I get the need for strong policy levers, but I think the people who are affected by these policies are feeling really isolated, and really alone, and enraged.” 

Dr Attwell says research shows mandates need an appropriate level of enforcement to be effective: Italy made a show of revamping its childhood vaccine mandates in 2017 after a resurgence of preventable diseases. Vaccinations were supposedly required to enrol in childcare and kindergarten and parents of older unvaccinated children could be fined. But it was so ineffective because the rules were so rarely enforced.

Intervention

Dr Attwell says police actions at Topolinis restaurant sound like a fair enough instance of 

a clearly laid out mandate that was breached and required intervention. But the situation at the church could’ve been handled in a way to keep more people onside: “Maybe the right thing to do would be to have cops out the front, or to wait until mass is over”, using this first instance as a caution or educational opportunity.

“The sheer amount of governing has increased. The scope of law enforcement to intervene has increased.

“How governments handle this more broadly will have impacts. Going back to the ways governments have handled terrorism and increased policed powers, that had an impact on public perceptions and trust in government. What’s happening now will reverberate for many years.”

Dr Attwell’s previous research, conducted in the pre-Covid era, found high levels of support for both vaccination and vaccine mandates like the “No Jab, No Pay” policy in Australia. 

But she is concerned Covid-specific vaccine hesitancy may spread to other childhood vaccinations.

“Some of the doubts people have around the Covid-19 vaccination – the kinds of misinformation associated with being a Covid-19 vaccine refuser, I think, can’t help but poison the well for other vaccines.”

by DAVID BELL

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