This is most probably the mother of all controversial and thorny subjects, at this precise moment. However, now that the FDA has fully approved Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine, I strongly believe that businesses and society at large need to take all steps necessary to normalise the act of getting vaccinated.
Vaccine hesitancy is and has been a growing social problem, well before COVID-19 came about. So much so, that in 2019, the WHO declared this vaccine hesitancy as top-10 threat to global health, with clear economic implications.
So my appeal to business leaders and business representative organisations, is to make sure that the response to this rising threat, is a strong and united front to make sure that vaccination against COVID-19 becomes mandated. Such a step, would go a long way toward fostering the social norms that can either mitigate or exacerbate this pandemic.
The debate around the mandating of COVID-19 vaccines seems to be stuck around legalistic views that mandates compel people to get vaccinated. But this ignores the potent symbolic value that mandates provide, especially in times of intense societal flux. We face a novel disease, and we’re armed with new vaccines created using novel approaches.
With Covid-19 still existent and new variants emerging, we also face unprecedented uncertainty that has no end in sight. This combination of novelty and uncertainty means that societal understandings of what we are or should be doing are in stat of constant flux, which means that they are there to be formed – they are up for grabs….and whom should we allow to grab them? I cannot see a better basis that having these societal understandings based and grabbed by science, rather than any other lunatic. Therefore, the faster we firmly establish social norms that uphold public health (i.e.getting vaccinated), the faster they become taken-for-granted ways to behave, and the faster we bring the pandemic under control.
The social problem we face is what social scientists call social mobilisation. Social mobilisation involves getting large numbers of people to perform a behaviour that is only beneficial when done by the vast majority of people. Let us take waste recycling as an example. If just one person recycles, their efforts are negligible. But if millions of people recycle, there are tremendous environmental benefits. The same logic holds for vaccination — the real benefit occurs only when all or almost all of the population is vaccinated. To address a range of social problems, the task is to get a significant number of people to engage in certain behaviors.
Research shows that social norms play a critical role in social mobilisation. This is because social norms contain “normative information” about what people are or ought to be doing. When people see certain behaviors (e.g., getting vaccinated) as commonplace, they then believe there is widespread agreement that the behaviour is the good or right thing to do and are more likely to act in accordance with the social norm.
And here’s where mandates come in.
Mandates and laws not only have a legal function (“you are required to do X”) but also a symbolic function (signaling that “doing X is a natural thing to do”). What keeps most of us from committing crimes is not constantly thinking about the rules and the punishments we may suffer for breaking them. Rather, we automatically do things that feel normal. Let us take wearing a seatblet in a car, as an example. Most of us today wear them not because we’re afraid of being punished for violating the law, but because doing so has become “natural.” As sociological research has documented, laws and regulations help create social norms and shared understanding because it’s societal institutions — governments, schools and businesses — that collectively construct the world we take for granted. In essence, through their policies, approaches and procedures, social institutions help create a world where certain things become unquestioned.
So, conversely, when society and businesses don’t mandate vaccination, it delegitimizes the Covid-19 vaccines by suggesting that the science is unsettled and that waiting to get vaccinated is prudent. In turn, this stance fuels vaccine hesitancy, thereby preventing the social mobilisation needed to bring the pandemic under control.
Some business leaders are hesitant to enter the fray on vaccination, viewing it as a political issue. Yet business leaders and their representatives have a very important say on important social issues and in the construction of social norms through their policies and actions.
To bring the pandemic under control, everyone or almost everyone needs to come to see that getting vaccinated as the unquestioned, right thing to do for themselves and for others…..by establishing and diffusing social norms that uphold science. Mandating the vaccines can help do just that.