CORONAVIRUS

‘A third of Spaniards would get vaccinated tomorrow, but another third have serious reservations’

Sociologist Josep Lobera discusses the growing rift in Spain over Covid-19, with millions showing dangerously high levels of distrust towards the vaccine, science and the health authorities

Josep Lobera, a sociologist at Madrid‘s Autonomous University.
Josep Lobera, a sociologist at Madrid‘s Autonomous University.SANTI BURGOS

Covid-19 vaccines will not solve anything by themselves. The thing that will end the pandemic is getting people to take them when they become available.

This nuance has been the focus of a recent study carried out by the sociologist Josep Lobera for the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology (Fecyt), which reports to the Science Ministry, exploring people’s perceptions regarding the Covid-19 vaccine. Indeed, there is a very real concern shared by governments around the world that many people might refuse to be vaccinated, putting the possibility of herd immunity at risk.

According to Lobera’s research, based on 2,100 surveys, only one-third of Spaniards would be prepared to get vaccinated tomorrow. Another third are wary of a rushed vaccine and afraid of playing guinea pig for a product that may not be entirely safe yet. But while this “swing” group could be persuaded, there is another demographic, amounting to almost a third of the population, who have deep-seated reservations. This group includes around two-and-a-half million people whose ideas mirror the “alternative” views of the Spanish singer and actor Miguel Bosé.

A profound distrust of the authorities has developed over the years due to the financial crises and social-media-sourced information, meaning that this third demographic is not open to persuasion where the vaccine is concerned, and furthermore shows signs of becoming increasingly reluctant to be part of a normally functioning society. It is this latter aspect that concerns Lobera the most. It is not only about mistrust in the management of a given government; this demographic is increasingly embracing conspiracy theories and rejecting the most basic elements needed for social cohesion. “We are at a stage when society could become far more fragmented than it has been and, given the indicators, it seems to me that Spain is among those Western societies at greatest risk of splintering right now,” says Lobera, who explains the conclusions drawn from his research.

Question. There is a very clear difference between what the Spanish people think of vaccines in general and the Covid-19 vaccine in particular.

Answer. There are far more reservations. In Spain, the level of acceptance regarding vaccines in general has been different from the rest of Europe. In general, attitudes are very favorable here; people think they are safe. But in this particular case, the ground is less fertile. People are more wary, which is in line with other countries. We have a third of respondents who would be prepared to be vaccinated tomorrow, another third that has reservations but could be persuaded, and then a little less than a third that has a great many reservations. And within that group, 7% are totally against. That’s 2.5 million people who are very much against any coronavirus vaccine. We have a society that is pretty fragmented in its attitudes, which is quite different from the scenario regarding childhood vaccines, on which there was an overwhelmingly positive consensus among the vast majority. Here, there are more gray areas, and that is where the battle is going to be fought. Whoever manages to convince that “swing” group could decide whether we reach the necessary levels of vaccination or not.

Not only is there mistrust in the government, but conspiracy theories are also coming into play, and this leads to more dysfunctional levels

Q. The reservations are not necessarily the result of absurd conspiracies; in some cases there are more logical misgivings, such as the implications of going for the first vaccine on the market, or the fear that security has been less stringent due to the sense of urgency.

A. This is not a homogeneous group and we need to convince those who are ambivalent. The views that are sometimes conveyed in scientific communications, ridiculing this entire group with the suggestion that those distrusting the vaccine are all nuts... That is not helpful when it comes to winning over this grey zone. Because it is a very large group and mostly open to persuasion. But they have an argument and reasonable doubts. There is a great range of positions, but there are a lot of people who don’t want the first vaccine that comes out, nor the second – what they’re saying is “Don’t play guinea pig with me. I already know how science works; it takes many years to develop a vaccine and suddenly you pull one out of the hat?”

Q. They are not against getting vaccinated per se, but are concerned about being part of the trial stage.

A. It ties in with an emerging ambivalence towards science since the 1980s. There is a section of the population that understands risk and uncertainty to be a key aspect of scientific progress, and they don’t want to be affected by possible unintended negative consequences. This mistrust is also very varied. There are those who distrust the pharmaceutical companies and others who distrust the link-up between science and politics.

Q. Your research found that suspicion also arises with regard to the interests of those financing the research in other areas of science and technology.

A. There is a very large group whose distrust is linked to economic issues. The big pharmaceutical companies, financial interests, even geopolitical interests. For others, suspicion arises because science generates risks and scientists are not Superman – it’s okay for them to experiment, but not with my family, thank you.

It seems to me that Spain is among the Western societies at greatest risk of splintering right now

Q. There are four groups that are particularly reluctant to be vaccinated against Covid-19: people with higher education, people on high incomes, people in good health, and the self-employed. Skepticism among the first three groups is common, but where does the reluctance of the self-employed stem from?

A. This is new and it has surprised me because statistically, it is very significant. It wasn’t the case with childhood vaccinations, and I can only explain it as a boomerang effect of motivated argument: the self-employed have suffered from higher levels of anxiety and greater uncertainty due to their personal circumstances, whether the impact is on their business, their way of life or their work in recent years. And given these circumstances, my theory is that these people are more likely to say things like, “They’re exaggerating; they’re doing it wrong; it’s just that they don’t know; the politicians don’t have a clue; they say one thing one day and then another; look at this doctor on YouTube.” These people have more reason to challenge the scientific consensus and the health authorities on confinement, vaccination, and so on.

Q. They are mistrustful.

A. I feel that it’s something that goes beyond vaccines and is a broader argument regarding how the pandemic is being managed. And that is something that worries me. We are at a stage when society could become far more fractured than it has been and, given the indicators, it seems to me that Spain is among the Western societies at greatest risk of splintering right now. It’s not about being left-wing or right-wing; it’s more about whether the risks affect you far more than they affect others, and the fear and mistrust that comes from that that can run very deep.

Q. How does this social splintering manifest itself?

A. Without social cohesion we can’t function – not without a minimum of trust in the government, the police, the teachers and the healthcare workers. Up to now, the levels of trust have been very low – a lack of confidence coupled with extreme political polarization: right-wing people are very suspicious of the decisions made by left-wing politicians and vice versa. But with the coronavirus, I think this distrust could reach much deeper and more dangerous levels. Not only is there mistrust in the government, but conspiracy theories are also coming into play, and this leads to more dysfunctional levels –to an absence of the kind of trust that is essential for coexistence and social functioning.

Q. What do you make of the denial movements? Are they merely anecdotal?

A. No, they’re not at all anecdotal. They represent the tip of the iceberg, the visible expression of that whole process of mistrust that is growing in various social groups. There have been relatively low and decreasing levels of trust over the last decades, with the crisis and austerity and so on. But this [Covid-19] has had a huge impact, causing certain groups to break away from very basic areas of agreement. And it is concerning, because this is not going to be the end of it; it looks like it is going to turn into a marathon – the vaccine will arrive and it will not be 100% effective. You then have a false hope scenario that could fuel further mistrust and certain groups may become discouraged. That is to say, the mistrust could then reach a dysfunctional level causing rupture and alternative groups to be formed. And by the time we try to reconnect, a coherent logic may already have been generated within those groups – a vision so different that it could lead to social problems.

Q. There are examples of celebrities like Miguel Bosé, the famous singer and conspiracy theorist, in many countries. Is it a sign of what is brewing beneath the surface?

A. On the one hand, he is the canary in the coal mine, a warning that something is brewing that we can’t see because we don’t belong to those groups. Millions of people in Spain are very skeptical and hold very alternative views. It’s also an indicator of the influence of political or popular leaders: people will change their perception of vaccines if they receive information from someone they trust on a political, social or cultural level.

If we rely on science-based communication that makes fun of people who are suspicious of the vaccine, that’s going to come at a cost

Q. But Bosé is not a leader when it comes to influencing opinion; a politician would surely be considered more dangerous.

A. Yes, but if I start to distrust the official version, I will select opinions that interest me from certain influencers. Suddenly, I will put more trust in what Miguel Bosé says. However, the majority of the “anti” demographic are found in the realms of political polarization. it is clear that people further to the right from the Popular Party and Vox, and further to the left who belong to fringe parties – not so much in Podemos – have a greater degree of mistrust in the vaccine. In [the anti-mask demonstration in] Plaza de Colón [in downtown Madrid], all of these elements were present. That’s why political leaders from all parties need to be included in the protocols and decisions. If we begin to exclude the political leaders we have less affinity with, we may find we are exacerbating the extremes. For example, if a Vox leader is on the vaccine commission and starts boasting that “thanks to us, we will have safe vaccines,” you will considerably reduce the mistrust within one of the groups most likely to feel it. This is strategic and important.

Q. What do you think the vaccination process will look like?

A. I think there will be a moment when things become fragmented. I think there are going to be people who will directly oppose it. I think those increasing levels of mistrust can lead to levels of confrontation such as those we’ve already seen between two people fighting over mask-wearing because they see the other person as a danger to their health, freedom, and rights. But I strongly believe that we are going to see a bigger fragmentation and that there will be groups that are angry at other groups for getting vaccinated or not. And then there will be the group in between that will fluctuate. And depending on how we manage communication, that “swing” group, which will be key to herd immunity, could go either way.

Q. But getting communication right is very complex on many levels. There is no silver bullet.

A. There is no silver bullet, but there are things that come with a high price tag. We need more measures to restore trust. If we rely on science-based communication that makes fun of people who are suspicious of the vaccine, that’s going to come at a cost. If the management of the pandemic is perceived as a political war in which the vaccine plays an instrumental role, that’s going to have a cost as well. We are not doing anything to nurture people’s trust; instead, we are eating away at it with poor decision-making. Trust is the fuel for [solving] this crisis, which is going to be drawn out. It is a basic resource which we are squandering, and we are not going to have any left when we need it most.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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