Trade unions have an important role to play in combatting vaccine hesitancy

As Covid-19 rages through India, ravages Turkey and continues to kill thousands in Brazil, it has become clearer than ever that none of us is safe until all of us are safe.

And as economies continue to suffer across Europe and Africa, with women, the young and workers in the informal sector hardest hit, it is clear that the recovery will only increase inequality unless we develop a New Social Contract.

A key element of that recovery must be equal access to vaccines for all. That means massively ramping up manufacturing, the suspension of intellectual property rights through a TRIPS Covid-19 waiver, and the funding necessary for public health systems to roll the vaccine out.

Trade unions are campaigning – with others in politics, business and civil society – for all of that. But we also have a key role in combatting what some call vaccine hesitancy, especially among those communities most likely to be worried about whether to get the vaccine.

There are good and bad reasons for vaccine hesitancy. Unions must have no truck with anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories, which are often spread for malign political and economic motives, such as right-wing nationalism, populism and get-rich-quick schemes for the purveyors of quack medicines.

But we need to address sympathetically those who are worried by that propaganda, or just naturally concerned about the safety of newly developed vaccines or possible side effects (much, much more rarely as severe as the effects of the virus itself, of course, but that’s no comfort if you develop any side effects but had not yet caught the virus). People are also worried about the impact of vaccination on livelihoods or, in many cases, sceptical that governments and employers who so rarely have their interests at heart can be trusted when it comes to the vaccine. A recent study conducted by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) has found that “health and social care workers who felt under greater pressure from their employers to receive COVID-19 vaccination were more likely to decline it”.

Trade union leaders, whether national or in the workplace, therefore have a key role to play.

We need to demonstrate our commitment and urge our members to take up the offer of vaccination when it comes. COSATU and its trade unions in South Africa regularly promote that message as a collective issue: get vaccinated not just for your own sake, but that of your family and friends, your workmates and fellow trade unionists in frontline occupations like caring professions, retail and public transport.
We need to mobilise our millions of workplace representatives to ensure that worried workers get the message from someone just like them, as Unite the Union in Britain and Ireland has done, getting the message out through what the union calls its ‘standing army’ of 30,000 workplace reps.

And unions need to ensure that – rather than employers or governments compelling workers to get vaccinated, because as the LSHTM study shows, nothing promotes hesitancy like compulsion by people workers have learned not to trust with their health, welfare or livelihood – workers are encouraged and enabled to get vaccinated when it is offered, not forced. That includes, as in Belgium, the right to paid leave for vaccination, or offering vaccinations at larger workplaces. Many unions in health and education are demanding more and earlier vaccination for frontline workers, as well as regular access to rapid antigen testing, so that economies can re-open and parents, family carers and other workers can get back to work.