In the battle to overcome COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, we've largely dispensed with the carrot and are starting to use increasingly bigger sticks.

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In the battle to overcome COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, we've largely dispensed with the carrot and are starting to use increasingly bigger sticks.

This week, the Board of Internal Economy, a committee that oversees operational issues for Parliament, said all federal MPs would have to be fully vaccinated to attend in-person sittings of the House of Commons. On the same day, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said Canadians who are fired for not complying with vaccine mandates may not be eligible for Employment Insurance.

These are not isolated examples. From coast to coast to coast, governmental and private employers are laying down the law on vaccines in a desperate effort to contain a fourth wave of COVID-19.

While debates over legality and morality may continue for some time to come, the architects of mandates continue to tighten the reins with one unambiguous truth: they work.

Notwithstanding the often robust opposition, the global vaccination rate has been slowly inching upwards.

A big part of that progress has been hard and fast rules that limit the movements and activities of unvaccinated people or threaten their jobs. That may seem harsh, but the social science is clear: most of the truly hesitant need to feel a bit of pain before they gain the confidence to get vaccinated.

Moreover, the threats some made about walking away from jobs to avoid being immunized were, for the most part, bluffs.

In September, two landmark opinion surveys of unvaccinated Americans came out suggesting widespread resignations were in the offing if vaccine mandates were not lifted. One, published in Scientific American, found 48 per cent would quit or look for another job.

Anecdotally, it's hard to find evidence these threats were real. Regardless of industry or size of business, most employers that have imposed vaccine mandates have seen the overwhelming majority step forward and get the jab. This has been the case even for businesses demanding employees be fully vaccinated and do not offer a testing option.

In Manitoba, 10,000 health-care workers had refused to declare their vaccination status in time for the Oct. 18 deadline. By the end of the week, only 178 had refused to get vaccinated or submit to testing, and were suspended.

U.S.-based airlines were among the first large employers to demand full vaccination for continued employment. At the end of last month, United Airlines reported only 593 (or 1.5 per cent) of its 67,000 employees had refused to get vaccinated. Delta Airlines has set a Nov. 1 deadline for full vaccination, and when progress towards that goal started to flatten, it announced a $200-a-month penalty for any employee that held out.

There are examples where vaccine mandates have not worked.

In New York state, for example, there are private hospitals and nursing home networks have seen steadfast refusal among employees to get vaccinated, even under threat of suspension or termination. It was that scenario that convinced Quebec to delay its deadline for full vaccination for provincial health-care workers until next month.

But are the mandates on their own the real reason people are getting vaccinated?

Many vaccine-hesitant people claim they are not vehement anti-vaxx activists. Instead, they claim they are just fearful and — although it's hard to believe, given the wealth of solid scientific evidence — unclear about the safety of vaccines.

Again, social scientists have been busy digging into the psyche of the unvaccinated to see which sticks work best in getting people over the anti-vaxx hump.

Civis, a public opinion polling and analytics company in the U.S., recently released a detailed poll of 5,000 unvaccinated Americans to assess the impact of eight different kinds of pro-vaccine messages, from the use of "scary COVID statistics" to patriotism and more direct forms of inducement.

The survey found the most successful message was it would help protect children. Close behind were "financial costs" of losing employment and "fear of missing out" on things such as live music, sporting events or being able to go into bars and restaurants.

Least impactful were messages relying on vaccine safety, alarming statistics about the toll COVID-19 has taken or personal stories of people who were convinced to get the jab.

What does it all mean?

As big a stick as it is, social and economic restrictions and employment-related vaccine mandates do work. Even when there is an initial period of pushback, most people affected eventually agree to get vaccinated.

That may not seem just or fair or right to some. But in a battle where even a small percentage of vaccine-resistant people can bring the health-care system to its knees, the stick has become an inevitable feature of the pandemic.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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