How Countries Around the World Are Communicating About the COVID-19 Vaccine

This article was written by our colleague Claudia, Associate of Client Experience.

It is well known that the COVID-19 vaccine is a polarizing topic in the U.S. Approximately 40% of our population remains to be vaccinated, and it seems as though we’ve reached a plateau in vaccination rates, while new variants emerge and cases continue to rise. While I am currently living in the U.S. and have been exposed firsthand to the ways in which our government and media platforms have communicated about the vaccine, I also have close ties to Brazil, my fatherland, and Portugal, a country I frequently visit. The U.S., Brazil, and Portugal have taught me different things about how to communicate about the COVID-19 vaccine. Through research and personal experiences, I have learned about what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to vaccinating a community, and thought I’d share with you what I have learned.

Vaccination Rates in Other Countries 

Compared to other developed, wealthy nations, the U.S. has one of the lowest vaccination rates. On the other hand, Portugal, one of the countries leading the world in vaccinations, has vaccinated 88% of their population, and 98% of all those eligible for the vaccine. Brazil, which is notorious, alongside the U.S., for having one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the world, has a 67% vaccination rate, 6% higher than the United States. While each country has a different population size, geography, and culture, understanding how different communities around the world communicate about health care can help us better understand how to effectively communicate important messages to keep us safe.

Communicating About the Vaccine 

When first reading about Portugal’s robust vaccination program, it led to various questions about how they achieved such success. Portugal’s vaccination program was led by the military, with Henrique Gouveia e Melo, an admiral and former submarine commander, in charge of the vaccination effort. When making public and TV appearances, he would only wear his combat uniform, stating he was wearing it because Portugal was in a “war phase.” Admiral Gouveia e Melo also used “language of war” and “military language” when speaking to the public and made it a point to detach himself from politics. When asked about what other countries should do to increase vaccination rates, he said, “they need to find people who are not politicians.”

Brazil surpassing the U.S. in vaccination rates contrasts with Brazil’s handling of the pandemic, as President Jair Bolsonaro has underplayed the pandemic to Brazil’s citizens, ignored vaccine offers from Pfizer, and has not yet received the vaccine. Then what is driving Brazil’s vaccination rates? Despite the current political unrest and polarization, Brazil has a strong vaccine culture. When smallpox and yellow fever broke out in Brazil in the early 1900s, the then-ruling military established vaccine campaigns, which allowed citizens in even the most rural places to get vaccinated. Vaccination sites popped up in festivals, religious gatherings, fairs and performances and reached 84% of Brazilians. Cities around Brazil followed a similar strategy for COVID-19, opening hundreds of vaccine locations, which were decorated as if it were Brazil’s renowned Carnival. Music, dancing, lights, and colors filled vaccination sites, even though people were just there to wait in line.

While we in the U.S. are not unfamiliar with vaccine mandates, rampant misinformation and unregulated statements about the COVID-19 vaccine have spread throughout media platforms. Companies, such as Facebook, Apple, iHeart radio, and other media companies have done little to regulate what their users and hosts say about the vaccine. With 60% of listeners under the age of 40 getting their news mainly through audio, it is difficult to regulate such a vast amount of COVID-19 misinformation. The U.S. government and local communities have come up with their own, creative ways to combat misinformation and increase vaccination rates. Over the summer, several U.S. states deployed “incentives,” which specifically target cultural and social aspects of certain communities. In West Virginia ,for example, residents who entered in the state’s vaccine lottery could win prizes such as hunting rifles, custom trucks, and weekend getaways at state parks. Some states saw vaccination rates jump, with an additional 113,000 Ohio residents receiving their first dose after the incentive was announced. However, most vaccine increases due to the incentives were short-lived.

While West Virginia’s demand for the vaccine has now dried up, it was once considered a vaccine “success story”. When vaccines started to become available earlier this year, instead of partnering with major pharmacies, such as CVS and Walgreens, the state relied on the National Guard and local pharmacies to handle distribution. Local pharmacies outnumber national chains in West Virginia, and are operated by locals who grew up in the community and have a personal connection with their customers. These mom-and-pop style pharmacies were a place where people often socialized before the pandemic, as residents established strong relationships with the owners and other customers. People in the community trust these small pharmacies more than they trust doctors, or pharmacists from large pharmacy chains, given their dependence on small businesses. In terms of health outcomes, West Virginia has one of the worst life expectancies in the nation, but quickly turned to their strong, local network and understanding of their communities’ outlook on health in order to lead one of the quickest vaccination rollouts in the world.

What Can We Learn

Each of these countries has taken a different approach to communicating about the vaccine to their populations. While the vaccine continues to be a hotly debated topic across the globe, understanding effective communication strategies and ones that are not so effective, can help guide us through what is now another wave of COVID-19. From powerful rhetoric to carnival decorations, there is always something the U.S. can learn in order to continue vaccinating its population effectively.

TELL US: What are some other countries that have exemplified successful vaccination efforts? Are there other, specific modes of communication that have proved to be effective?


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