Written by Fernanda Scarpari (Brazil) and Alex Norman (USA), project managers at Echo Market Research.
It’s unsurprising that some countries are dealing with the COVID pandemic in a better – or at least more organized – way than others. Vaccine rollout has been a big talking point amongst the team here at Echo Market Research. As a global research company, we’ve been particularly interested in the different experiences across countries and cultures and have discovered a common thread: misinformation and fake news is playing a huge role in vaccine attitudes and uptake. Conducting secondary investigation, we’ve put together the following thought piece comparing Brazil and the USA.
Truth or Dare
The effect of false information on public policies and societal behaviors of communities under the COVID-19 outbreak has gotten so uncontrollable that a specific term has been designed to describe it: according to the World Health Organization, we are living in an infodemic event. The massive sharing of constantly improving and accessible misleading data is, in the long run, making it harder for people to differentiate what is true from what is false or, even worse, from what is just not accurate. They start questioning the truth component of every piece of data they are handed, and this suspicious mindset infiltrates the trust in government institutions and even in science-based outputs and recommendations such as vaccines and wearing a facial mask in public.
Taking a snapshot of Brazil
Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and his staff are under current investigation to determine whether his actions to locally manage the pandemic were the fruit of negligence or lack of infrastructure and information to back his wills. Regardless of the intentions behind his actions, the facts are that Brazil is the second leading country in the number of deaths, with 400,000 lost citizens since the pandemic started. On the one hand, public resistance to quarantine lockdowns has been partially led by insufficient economic assistance from the government to battle the decreasing income and employment rates. On the other, political disputes and poor vaccination rates with only 7% of the total population fully vaccinated – just about the South America average rate, but considerably behind neighboring countries such as Uruguay and Chile, with respectively over 20% and 35% in early May 2021. What role has the media played in the Brazilian path?
Not long after the American president in office at that time, Donald Trump, publicly advertised in favor of chloroquine as a preventive treatment for the Coronavirus – something that itself gained traction in social media with Elon Musk sharing an article of what still remains a doubtful study – the Brazilian nation leader embraced it as a guide to his own country’s public policy to fight the pandemic. Expanding its national production and having the Ministry of Health recommend its use in severe cases of the COVID disease was the tip of the iceberg.
Public fights in the President’s Health Committee, mainly related to a part of his personnel refusing to advertise in favor of medical orientations not backed up by conclusive scientific research, led Bolsonaro to celebrate this April 2021 his 4th Health Minister since the COVID outbreak started in March 2020. State governors, unsatisfied with the absence of a consistent nationwide public strategy against the pandemic, started establishing their own parameters to measure and counterattack the COVID spread among the population.
The public battle with one of the strongest political opponents to the president in the pandemic, São Paulo State Governor João Dória, was one of the two main factors that caused the Brazilian president Bolsonaro to reject the purchase of 60 million Coronavac vaccine doses from the Chinese laboratory SINOVAC still in October 2020. The other reason? The federal government had no interest in “Chinese vaccines”, following the conspiracy theory supported by his far-right voters – and aligned with at that time Donald Trump’s public positioning of COVID as the “Chinese virus” – that the pandemic was intentionally created by China.
Over a year into the pandemic, Brazil is still suffering the wicked combination of misinformation and public policies. But it’s not suffering alone.
COVID-19 Vaccination in the United States: A Sociopolitical Litmus Test
How is the SARS-COV-2 vaccination effort faring in the United States by comparison? In the earliest months of 2021, as the Biden administration amplified the nationwide vaccination effort and as more eager US adults became eligible, the overall rate of vaccination increased steadily. By mid-April, the United States reached a new high of 4 million daily doses. However, just as this new and promising threshold had been reached, the rate of vaccination among US adults started to decline. With all people over the age of 12 now eligible to receive a shot, a new question arises: Has the US government done enough to make the vaccine not only accessible but–perhaps just as importantly–desirable to all? As of May 2021, the answer to this question seems to be a “no” given that a significant percentage of the US still feels hesitancy about the new vaccines.
Even as access to vaccines improves, it is becoming increasingly clear that a significant percentage of the US public is refusing vaccination outright. In the United States, vaccine hesitancy was on the rise long before the emergence of SARS-COV-2, but misinformation in the early days of the pandemic under the Trump administration contributed to even more public confusion about the safety and efficacy of vaccines. The scientific community was frequently at odds with government officials, who openly flouted mask mandates and questioned the severity of the SARS-COV-2 virus.
Internet forums and social media platforms added fuel to the notion that the dangers of a rapidly-developed vaccine might outweigh the dangers of the virus. This lack of a unified message has had lasting effects on both the spread of the disease and people’s willingness to get vaccinated, especially among those who cannot differentiate a reliable source from an unreliable one or who may have strong political or religious beliefs. Even several months after the end of Donald Trump’s presidential term, vaccine hesitancy is statistically higher among non-college-educated Americans, Republicans, and white evangelical Christians. Like Brazil, the United States is still suffering from the fallout of a politically powered misinformation campaign.
What, then, can be done to convince a populace that already believes it is well-informed about the risks of the new COVID-19 vaccines and is distrustful of the scientific community’s assurances that the vaccine is safe? To address this issue, the Food and Drug Administration has made strides to show the public that the safety of vaccines is a top priority.
On April 13, 2021, the FDA paused the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is administered in a single dose, due to reports of blood clots in a minute percentage of vaccinated people. Having determined the risk to the public to be negligible, the FDA then cleared the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for nationwide use at the end of April. In the short term, this unfortunately contributed to a decline in the number of shots given in the latter half of the month, but in the longer-term one could argue that it served as a reassurance to those who are hesitant to be vaccinated: essentially, it demonstrated to the public that the US government under the Biden administration is monitoring the new vaccines closely for any potential risks and is only releasing them to the public upon guaranteeing their safety.
Another part of the solution may simply be the passage of time and increasing familiarity with the new vaccines. Vaccine hesitancy is on the decline as more and more people sign up for their shots, and this may prove to be one of–if not the most–effective means of convincing people to get their shots. The Kaiser Family Foundation in a recent poll found that 20% of US adults said that they would not get vaccinated unless required to do so and that a further 17% said that they would be willing to get the vaccine only after seeing its effect on others.
While these numbers are quite high, this same poll showed that the number of people who are hesitant to get the vaccine has fallen precipitously since December. This is likely in part because people are growing more comfortable with the vaccines as more and more colleagues, friends and family members are getting them, as well as because the vaccine appears to be working very well in countries such as the UK and Israel where higher vaccination rates correspond to lower rates of COVID-19 death and infection. The Biden administration is planning to facilitate the accessibility of the vaccines by increasing the number of pharmacies that will be permitted to give out shots to around 40,000 nationwide and is encouraging employers and colleges to offer shots as well. This may prove to be the US government’s strongest bid yet for improving vaccination rates even among those most reluctant.
While it seems like the US is set to at least partially repair the earlier damage that misinformation dealt to its vaccination drive, pertinent questions (and corresponding topics of research) remain: What effect does the “infodemic” phenomenon have on vaccination rates in the US, Brazil, or in other countries around the world? Which faulty sources are most to blame for this issue? What could have been done differently to prevent this “infodemic” scenario from being realized in the first place? Better still, how could public health disasters in the form of vaccine hesitancy be avoided in the future?
And if you haven’t read it yet, make sure to check out the research we’ve also done on how vaccine rollout in Latin America has affected regional markets and future trends here.