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Trusting the messages and the messenger: Filipinos and the COVID-19 vaccines

As we hit the one-year mark of COVID-19’s arrival on Philippine soil, we have reason to be cautiously optimistic. We followed in the global trend and have begun vaccinating healthcare professionals, and multiple deals with various providers are being finalized. Though this may indicate that we’re well on our way to a new chapter of our lives, whether or not this new chapter will pan out the way we desire is left to be seen.

Ongoing vaccination of our frontliners is one step, but vaccinating the entire population — or rather, convincing the population to trust in the vaccination process — is an entirely different battlefield. After all, issues with public health and trust in the Philippines predate COVID-19, with resentment over the Dengvaxia controversy lingering among many sectors. This past year made the value of relevant messaging quite clear, with scientists and government officials constantly at odds with one another. And regardless of what we say and who says it, we face an inconvenient truth: the channels we use to communicate are cluttered in the confusion of a whirlwind year. With all these in mind, we must ask ourselves: Are Filipinos ready for the COVID-19 vaccines?

To do this, we partnered with research firm Tangere to reach 4,400 Filipinos with a simple survey, asking people across the nation what they know, how they feel, and what it would take to convince the skeptical to avail of the COVID-19 vaccines. The results of our research reveal plenty about how our institutions deliver their messages and the degrees to which Filipinos trust the messengers. Allow me to share the key insights from this work.

The first insight is as simple as it is jarring — a majority of Filipinos do not feel ready for a vaccine. Though many understand the role that vaccines play in preventing the spread of COVID-19, most express apprehension over potential side-effects and skepticism over the legitimacy of procurement processes. These two insights may very well be directly related: after all, it stands to reason that insufficient background information on a product would lead to an overall distrust in the product itself.

This is not to say that they don’t believe who has given them their knowledge, or that they question the legitimacy of the messenger. On the contrary, from the many information channels utilized, an overwhelming majority cite the Department of Health (DoH) as their most trusted source. Why then does apprehension persist? In diving deeply into the results, we learn that it’s a question of both quality and quantity. Respondents indicate a need for comprehensive knowledge and showcase a desire to learn more about everything from side effects and proper dosage to the process of vaccine development and rollout. Our country has taken to traditional and online communication technologies, and we must grow vaccine education across both formats in order to provide that which the people would like.

Perhaps the most provocative insight lies in asking what can be done to convince the skeptical of the vaccines’ benefits. Indeed, the majority note that additional information will ease their concerns. Beyond this lies an intriguing truth about our society: in deciding whether or not to be vaccinated, respondents value the assurance from a trusted member of one’s circle more heavily than assurances from health professionals, whether in government bodies or in hospitals. We are then presented with a conundrum: while Filipinos confirm their high trust in the institutions that make healthcare a reality in the Philippines, the push to avail of institutional vaccination programs will largely come from one’s social network.

How can we use all this information toward getting our countrymen onboard with a project that will sustain us all? Though our options are plenty, we propose three key strategies:

First, we must expand the breadth of our messaging so that Filipinos are equipped with all the facts that they need to ease their fears and convince them that vaccines are safe. While respondents make it clear that the information they desire runs quite a gamut, our officials possess the knowledge and fortitude to answer the questions which linger, and should see to it that they address concerns promptly.

Second, those tasked with the responsibility of sharing this information must harness every channel available, striking a balance between traditional communication and communication that newer generations are more fond of utilizing. As Filipinos, we thrive on innovation, and at a time like the present where we have been forced to try new solutions, there is no reason why we cannot go beyond the typically accepted forms of information delivery to generate greater reach. We see effective communication as striking a delicate balance between the old and the new: after all, in every survey we’ve conducted, social media and television are the stand-out top preferred channels, despite coming from very different generations. The importance of insights on the vaccines cannot be overstated, so let’s use all the resources available to get the information out there.

Lastly, given the importance of relatability in convincing the apprehensive, the development of an influencer network is imperative. If people are skeptical about the information out there, limiting the messenger to the same set of leaders will do nothing to sway their opinions. Rather, we see the benefit in building a system of shared leadership, wherein key individuals across various sectors, industries, and demographics can spread relevant messaging in their respective contexts. These thought leaders can vouch for the vaccine’s safety and then harness their influence toward enabling a strong movement of Filipinos who are educated on their health and prepared to safeguard it for generations to come.

We know that none of this will be simple — and certainly these shifts will not occur overnight. Hopefully, through looking deeply into the insights we share as well as those we entrust to share them, we can lead the country on the path toward collective healing. It is our hope, both as communicators and nation-builders, that as many of us as possible can experience the next normal together.

This article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines or MAP.


Junie S. Del Mundo is Chair of the MAP Health Committee, Vice-Chair of the MAP CEO Conference Committee and Chair and CEO of The EON Group.

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