The deadly riot at our nation’s Capitol stands as a monument to the power of words. When misused, words can confuse, divide, incite, and even kill. But history has taught us words also have the power to inform, inspire, unite, and protect.
Since rioters breached the Capitol doors on Jan. 6, more than 40,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. Yet the toll of this unfathomable pandemic is being overshadowed by the fallout from another presidential impeachment and the threat of more violence as our nation prepares for President-elect Biden’s inauguration. With every second we waste on political rancor and acrimony, the virus tightens its death grip on our nation’s health, security and long-term prosperity.
Republicans have a historic opportunity to help turn the tide of this pandemic. The first crucial step is to acknowledge that the science is settled: masks and vaccines save lives. America’s recovery hinges on these two vital public health measures, which continue to be dangerously undermined. And while the national conversation has focused, rightfully so, on building vaccine confidence among hard-hit minority communities, there are two other groups we must not overlook: young Republicans and rural Americans.
According to a poll we conducted in late December, Republicans are 20% less likely to get a vaccine than Democrats. To be precise, roughly one-third of Republicans age 18-49 (32%) and Americans living in rural or farming communities (36%) say they will “definitely not” get vaccinated. Their concerns are fueled by those intent on misleading and manipulating the public’s views of the vaccine. And as the pace of vaccine distribution is set to quicken after the inauguration, this is a critical time for all political leaders to speak up on the safety and efficacy of the vaccines. Silence is complicit and allows misinformation to further distance us from what we all want: an end to this pandemic and a return to normal. In particular, because of the greater concern among their base, Republican leaders on the local, state and federal level have an essential public health responsibility to encourage vaccine acceptance for everyone, everywhere. Their leadership can help build the vaccine confidence needed to protect the lives of millions of Americans and accelerate our economic recovery.
It starts by choosing the right words, and here’s what works:
The end game is a return to normal. Yes, that means spending less time talking about health and saving lives. Most Americans, especially Republicans, are eager for “a return to normal.” Though this message doesn’t work with everyone, it’s what motivates young Republicans the most.
“It’s the economy, stupid.” James Carville was right in 1992 and he would be right today. For those most concerned about the vaccine, they are motivated to get vaccinated as soon as possible to get the economy moving and get people back to work. They recognize that a consequence of not taking the vaccine would mean more restrictions and more damage to the economy.
Keep Uncle Sam out of it. Participating in something truly historic, changing the course of history or helping to unite the country are among the least effective messages. Avoid words like “national duty” (favored by Biden) and focus on the fact that taking the vaccine will keep people and their families safe and healthy on an individual and personal level.
Give everyone the space to make a choice. To most Americans, it’s not about the betterment of society. Telling people that getting the vaccine is “the right thing to do” simply doesn’t work. Don’t lecture people. They want the facts, and they want to know the vaccine will keep their family safe.
Address safety concerns head on. The greatest concerns for Americans are the potential long-term side effects, and to a slightly lesser degree, short-term side effects. We need to emphasize that the likelihood of experiencing a severe side effect is less than 0.5%; mild side effects are normal signs that their body is building protection; and most side effects should go away in a few days.
Don’t label. Using the term “vaccine hesitant” can come across as judgmental. We need to validate those feelings, normalize concerns, and open a dialogue where questions can be answered, and misinformation corrected. It’s important to say, “I hear you” and “I understand your concerns,” rather than arguing, debating, and furthering our polarization.
As vaccine distribution begins to extend beyond health care workers and our oldest citizens, conversations will shift to personal choice. Now is the critical window when many Americans are deciding if they will take the vaccine. And as we witnessed in the aftermath of the riot, words only spoken after the devastation come too late. If we get this right, we can make sure our rural communities bounce back just as quickly as our cities. We can bring manufacturing back to full capacity. We can bring our children back to the classroom.
Just as words incited unprecedented violence at our nation’s Capitol, words can make a meaningful, measurable difference in ending the most significant public health crisis of the past 100 years. But only if our Republican leaders speak up now and choose their words wisely.