A study recently released by an Irish team of researchers has found that vaccination status is a key determinant of people’s attitudes towards those suffering from Covid-19.
Researchers included Marius Claudy and Suhas Vijayakumar of UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School and Norah Campbell of Trinity Business School
“The findings highlight that unvaccinated individuals not only face potential health threats from Covid-19 but are also at risk of being socially excluded by the vaccinated population which is the majority,” said Associate Professor Marius Claudy.
“The study shows that people have far less sympathy towards unvaccinated individuals when they fall ill and are less likely to help them and their families. Similarly, when someone involuntarily infects others with the virus, people are much angrier when they know that the “spreader” was unvaccinated, and they therefore want harsher punitive action.”
Recently published in the journal of Social Science & Medicine, the study surveyed 1,200 participants in the USA (general citizens, not health care professionals) and investigated how vaccination status determines willingness to help critically ill Covid-19 patients and their families, as well as the desire to punish people who have (involuntarily) infected others with the virus.
The study found that vaccinated individuals are likely to attribute responsibility and blame for contracting the illness to Covid-19 patients who haven’t been vaccinated.
Similarly, vaccinated people are likely to feel anger towards unvaccinated people who may have infected others with Covid-19.
From a public and health policy perspective, Prof Claudy explained that the study reveals that unvaccinated people have to deal with negative attitudes and behaviours from the vaccinated population including social exclusion and isolation which have been linked to other illnesses, such as depression and anxiety.
“From the perspective of the unvaccinated, it is important to realise that others are likely to blame them for their own misfortune when they fall ill, which can result in real-world social consequences,” Prof Claudy explained.
“For example, in a recent article in The Atlantic they reported that health care professionals suffer from ‘compassion fatigue’ when it comes to unvaccinated patients – mainly because they believe that there is no need for these people to be in hospital. Often, the last thing the patients were saying before being transferred to ICU was that they wished they had been vaccinated. This was causing frustration among healthcare professionals.”
Prof Claudy points out that the unvaccinated population may already face severe restrictions on their lifestyles, and they also have to deal with adverse social consequences from the majority of people who are vaccinated.
The social isolation can also lead to difficulties. “They may not be allowed to travel or enter certain premises, and they can be isolated even by friends and family. This can result in negative mental health outcomes including depression.”
“We know that when people get blamed or judged they can push back against it” he said.
“Psychological reactance can strengthen their belief that they are doing the right thing; that they are the only ones who can see clearly. It can feed into and reinforce people’s decisions not to get vaccinated.”
“The study highlights a societal phenomenon and provides an explanation for the social dynamics between vaccinated and unvaccinated,” explained Prof Claudy.
“We clearly point towards evidence that shows that ‘Covd-19 vaccinations significantly reduce transmissibility, as well as hospitalizations and mortality rates (e.g., Haas et al., 2021; Polack et al., 2020)’. Because of this overwhelming evidence ‘severe illness or deaths related to Covid-19 are now widely viewed as controllable, if not avoidable outcomes’. And that is why vaccinated people believe that unvaccinated carry much greater personal responsibility when they fall ill or infect others.”
And this is where the problems related to psychological reactance kick in. “We saw the same reaction in some militant smokers,” Prof Claudy said. “When their freedom to smoke was threatened, some began to smoke even more. The same happens in relation to gun rights in the US. When there is talk about gun control, proponents of guns are motivated even more to defend their right to carry arms.“
Prof Claudy believes that the “blame game” will only exasperate these two positions, but that knowing about these social-psychological mechanisms can help us to find different ways to encourage uptake of vaccination.
“From the perspective of the vaccinated, it is important to understand that unvaccinated individuals are likely to experience negative attitudes and even hostile behaviour. This can potentially make things worse, including a greater refusal to get vaccinated and increasing polarisation.”
While the findings may seem unsurprising, "there are learnings which can be taken from them".
“We need to think about other ways to reach unvaccinated people and persuade them to get vaccinated. The blame game will only lead to greater polarisation. We have to be mindful of that and try to take a more positive approach. People can become more stubborn as a result of a negative approach.”
That might require further studies, the authors noted.
“Maybe we need more research into what motivates people not to get vaccinated. For some of them it is simply a fear of putting something into their body that they think might make them sick. Other people might buy into conspiracy theories propagated by some of the anti-vaccination community.
"If you are in that mind-frame and find society turning against you and even friends and relatives excluding you, you might go even deeper down that rabbit hole. It can be a case of them against the world. We need to find better ways to deal with people’s motivations not to get vaccinated.”