Empathy is an underrated weapon in fighting vaccine skepticism

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If someone you know expresses skepticism about getting a potential COVID-19 vaccine—if and when one is released—it can feel difficult to know how to respond accurately and convincingly. But according to Karen Ernst, executive director of Voices for Vaccines, an organization that helps inform parents about vaccines, you don’t need any special expertise to correct misinformation: You can simply point out that what that person is saying contradicts doctors and public health experts.

What is essential, though, is being empathetic while doing so.

“It’s really important at that point to be a good listener as well as a good talker,” Ernst said at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit on Tuesday. She emphasized how crucial it is “to listen, to find out what it is that is behind this person’s hesitancy about vaccines or why they’re listening to a particular kind of misinformation.”

The central theme of the virtual panel, hosted by Clinton Foundation vice chair Chelsea Clinton, was reliance on close relationships as a foundation for honest dialogue about vaccines. Yet even taking that approach, the fight against misinformation is daunting, given the sheer amount of it present on social media platforms. 

“Social media could tip the scales if it wanted to in favor of truth, and the companies do not choose to do that on the whole,” said Ernst. “It not only increases the spread of misinformation, … it also groups people together so that their incorrect ideas don’t seem as abnormal as they otherwise would.”

Underscoring this challenge, Joslyn Prince, a student at Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins, Texas, spoke about her campaign to spread accurate COVID-19 information among local communities of color. When asked how she would deal with someone who wasn’t willing to take standard COVID-19 precautions, she would take a direct approach and tell them:  “We need to so we can stop the spread.”

The solution, argued Anuradha Gupta, deputy CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, is to focus on local communities, building trust with channels people trust such as health providers, religious leaders, and faith-based organizations. The alliance is working to equip these ambassadors on the ground with the information and tools they need to respond to the community’s questions.

Ultimately, Gupta’s advice for fighting vaccine skepticism is simple: “The best antidote to misinformation is good information.”

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