Many Albertans are frustrated and angry with the unvaccinated, but what to do with those feelings?

·7 min read
According to a CBC News poll, nine per cent of Albertans say they have no intention to get vaccinated against COVID-19. (Reuters - image credit)
According to a CBC News poll, nine per cent of Albertans say they have no intention to get vaccinated against COVID-19. (Reuters - image credit)

Dr. Daisy Fung finds it hard to measure time these days. She just keeps working until she's done.

Amidst the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Edmonton family doctor works "killer hours" treating patients, even visiting some of her palliative, geriatric and house-bound patients in their homes.

"Everything during COVID just seems to take a lot longer," said Fung, an assistant clinical professor in the department of family medicine at the University of Alberta.

She recently spent two hours talking with a patient hesitant to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

"Drawing empathy has been harder and harder in general during this pandemic," said Fung.

While she inevitably finds understanding with her patients, she struggles to identify with some people.

"It's especially frustrating when in my personal life, I see people who are suffering from COVID or have lost both parents to COVID … [and] they're not vaccinated and they're spreading misinformation."

And Fung is not alone.

Daisy Fung/Facebook
Daisy Fung/Facebook

An acrimonious current animates social media discussions about Alberta's seemingly interminable COVID-19 situation.

Many people seem to be fed up. As the provincial government and medical professionals continue to implore Albertans to get vaccinated, the white noise of angry posts, tweets and memes pile on top of each other in the forums.

This can lead to anger with each other, and with the provincial government.

According to a new poll conducted for CBC News, anger and frustration top the list of feelings Albertans have when asked about those who choose not to be vaccinated.

Feelings about the unvaccinated and COVID-19

Almost a quarter of people in Alberta (23 per cent) say they are angry with the unvaccinated.

Forty-three per cent say they feel frustrated.

The random survey of Albertans also found that 22 per cent of people in the province express understanding, while only one in 10 people say they are indifferent about people who are not yet vaccinated.

One per cent of Albertans say they are not sure how they feel about those who haven't received their COVID-19 vaccine jabs yet.

Feelings About the Unvaccinated

"People gravitated toward the very strong words," said Calgary-based pollster Janet Brown, who conducted the survey for CBC News.

According to the survey, anger and frustration are more pronounced among women, urban dwellers, the retired and more educated Albertans. Plus, people who say they are very or somewhat stressed by COVID-19 are also likely to express frustration and anger about the unvaccinated. And stress levels have grown over the course of the pandemic.

Stress Caused by COVID-19

"Over the last few months, there's been so much commentary about how divided we are as a population, how polarized we are as a population," said Brown.

However, two-thirds of Albertans appear united by their exasperation with those who are unvaccinated, she said.

"As a pollster, I regularly get results that are 55 to 45 per cent or 52 to 48 per cent.… I wouldn't describe the population as polarized at all. I think there's a strong consensus in the province."

But where does that get us?

What are we going to do with it?

According to provincial data, slightly more than three-quarters of Albertans 12 and over are already fully vaccinated.

According to the CBC News poll, nine per cent of Albertans say they have no intention to get vaccinated. It also found that two per cent of Albertans are not sure about their vaccine intentions, and another two per cent say they can't be vaccinated for medical reasons.

Despite the mounting death toll, the burden on intensive care units, and the number of cancelled surgeries, about 13 per cent of Albertans likely won't get vaccinated.

Myles Leslie, associate director of research at the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy, sympathizes with the anger and frustration many Albertans have for people who are unvaccinated.

Julien Lecacheur/CBC
Julien Lecacheur/CBC

"I totally get where it comes from," said the associate professor, who studies vaccine hesitancy.

"But what are we going to do with it?"

Empathy and compassion is a good starting point in any effort to convince people to get vaccinated, he said.

Whether you are pro- or anti-vaccine, Leslie encourages Albertans to move beyond labelling each other as "malthinking morons from somewhere over there."

"You want to channel that energy, that anger, that frustration into a productive conversation, rather than a Twitter-style shouting match," he said.

Recent research into persuading reluctant people to get the COVID-19 vaccine concluded that confrontation with facts and/or scare tactics provoke more resistance.

Leslie's own work highlights the importance of discovering "a vaccine-hesitant person's positive motivation," because getting them to say yes to an inoculation requires lengthy empathetic conversations to find out why the person is hesitant.

"You have to be empathetic, actually get into their worldview," said Leslie.

The individualized roots of vaccine hesitancy

The notion of the individual and individual rights have gained prominence in recent decades, Leslie says, and with them, the idea of personal responsibility.

"We were all little individual risk managers," he said, meaning we all have to plan appropriately, for instance, for our health and retirement.

In this way, the individualism of some can be at odds with others. In particular, those Albertans who have adopted a more collectivist worldview during this pandemic.

The province has been asking Albertans to get vaccinated for months, including running some vaccine lotteries and eventually even offering cash for a jab. But the social politics of the very idea of the vaccine has divided Albertans.

"That seems to be the fissure that seems to be opening up in Alberta politics," said pollster Janet Brown, "whether people take a collective communal approach to public policy, or whether they take an individualistic approach."

But whatever their approach, many Albertans are united in their disapproval of the United Conservative Party's management of COVID-19.

Public attitudes about government

At the onset of the pandemic, Albertans' trust in experts rose.

Seventy per cent of Albertans strongly or somewhat approved of the provincial government's management of the pandemic in May of 2020.

Fast forward a year and a half and the governing UCP — mired in controversy and internal infighting — gets high marks from only 20 per cent of Albertans.

Nearly eight in 10 Albertans (78 per cent) somewhat or strongly disapprove of the UCP's handing of COVID-19, according to the latest CBC News poll.

Albertans gave higher marks to the federal government and their respective municipal governments for managing the pandemic.

Premier Jason Kenney promised Albertans the "best summer ever." Experts questioned what they called the government's risky reopening plan based on wishful optimism. And a fourth wave followed in the fall.

Government Handling of COVID-19

Brown says she thinks the UCP's erratic response to the pandemic has undermined public confidence in its management of the crisis.

"I think it's a factor of the government changing its mind too many times in the course of the pandemic, and … I think it's also the government being quiet at the very times when people want to hear from it the most," said Brown.

The public's dissatisfaction could prove fatal for a government hoping to get re-elected in the spring of 2023.

"With so many people being dissatisfied with the government's handling of the single most important issue in the province," said Brown, "this is a very big hole for this government to dig itself out of."

But the polling data on anger and frustration toward the unvaccinated could provide the UCP with some leverage. Brown thinks the UCP could interpret it as a licence to impose tougher public health measures.

"I think the public is giving the government a mandate to make some of the tough choices that need to be made around mandatory vaccinations, mandatory restrictions and do whatever they can do to get a quick end to this pandemic."

Meanwhile, medical professionals and the provincial government will continue the slow, painstaking work of trying to convince the unvaccinated to get their shots.

Motivating the vaccine hesitant

For the foreseeable future, Dr. Daisy Fung will likely continue to work long hours.

Empathy goes a long way, she says, recalling her recent two-hour conversation with a patient who was nearly incapacitated by the fear of getting the vaccine.

Scare tactics and facts don't win the argument, but listening to the patient can work, she said.

"When you truly listen to that and hear that and feel that palpable fear, you can draw empathy from that."

Methodology:

This survey was conducted Sept. 27 to Oct. 6, 2021, by Alberta-based Trend Research under the direction of Janet Brown Opinion Research. The survey sampled 900 Albertans aged 18 and over. Respondents were initially contacted at random by live telephone interviewers and given the option of (1) answering the survey over telephone at that time; (2) answering over the telephone at a more convenient time; or (3) receiving the link and answering the survey online. The initial sample list contained approximately 50 per cent landlines and 50 per cent cellphones. Interviewers made up to five attempts to reach each phone number in the sample before classifying it as unreachable. The margin of error for a probability sample of 900 people is plus or minus 3.3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20 (i.e., at a 95% confidence interval).

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