Vaccination Nations: Skeptics and Strategies Around the World : Rough Translation Two very different approaches to wooing vaccine skeptics. And how a little FOMO can go a long way.
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Welcome To The Vaccination Club

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Welcome To The Vaccination Club

Welcome To The Vaccination Club

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This is ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. I'm Gregory Warner. So maybe you saw this sketch on "Jimmy Kimmel" that came out just before Valentine's Day. It shows a guy presenting his girlfriend with a small velvet box.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: This year, get her the one thing she's been waiting for...

WARNER: And then he opens the box.




WARNER: It's a vaccine vial.




UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Don't just be her somebody. Be her antibody.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: ...Because the quickest way to the heart...

WARNER: That sketch came out on a Thursday. Then a few days later, something weird happened. A news channel in Lebanon called OTV ran this clip as though it were a serious pharmaceutical ad campaign running in the United States.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Yes, it did. It ran as a serious news story in the main newscast for OTV.

WARNER: NPR's correspondent Ruth Sherlock is based in Beirut.

SHERLOCK: It so happened that Valentine's Day was the day that Lebanon started giving the Pfizer vaccine to people. They started administering the vaccine here.

WARNER: So someone there thought this was true, this was real?

SHERLOCK: Well, I contacted OTV, and they said, look; it's quite embarrassing, but this was a mistake.

WARNER: By the time Ruth called OTV, the channel was being mocked in Lebanon for this. And they had an explanation.

SHERLOCK: It was a young person who'd just started working here, and she just kind of, like, didn't notice the canned laughter and didn't notice the "Jimmy Kimmel" logo...


SHERLOCK: ...And just thought to insert it in the regular news bulletin.





SHERLOCK: But OTV is known for being the biggest spreader of vaccine disinformation among the main media outlets here in Lebanon.


WARNER: Disinformation like the vaccines are a Masonic ploy - and they'll mess with your DNA.

SHERLOCK: And then there's also, you know, the idea that the coronavirus and the vaccine are a strategy by bigger powers, namely George Soros, to kind of control the population.

WARNER: In the sectarian media landscape of Lebanon, where every religious group has their own political party and every party, their own sympathetic TV channel, OTV is the channel aligned with the Free Patriotic Movement. It's the party of Christian conservatives.

SHERLOCK: The views of this base are very nativist. They take a very anti-immigration stance because they're afraid that refugees are taking their jobs here. They feel this kind of loss of status, loss of agency. Nothing is working around them. And there's this kind of constant fear among this Christian group that their way of life is under attack.

WARNER: If you're already primed to be skeptical of vaccines and then you're presented this Kimmel spoof without the irony, ignore the laugh track, it is kind of sinister. Pfizer is advertising its vaccine as a kind of luxury good, and a luxury good, almost by definition, is something you pay too much for and don't really need.

SHERLOCK: Conspiracy theories in Lebanon are seen as a useful political tool to divert attention away from failings or unpopular policies. People kind of buy into them because they feel like they have lost the ability to change anything themselves. We can't really know for sure what the person that chose to run this ad was thinking. But absolutely, you could say that this fits into this pattern of the others have more, and the others are against you.


WARNER: This is ROUGH TRANSLATION, the show with far-off stories that hit close to home. I'm Gregory Warner.


WARNER: Flash news - people are willing to believe a parody video and ignore the laugh track or hold on to a conspiracy theory despite evidence to the contrary. What do you do about that? Around the world, health authorities are trying to persuade the vaccine-hesitant to get the shot. Today on the show, we visit two countries and look at two very different strategies. In our first story, a man takes great pains to make the doubters feel heard and understood. It's all about the patient art of engagement. In the other story, a little bit of estrangement may do the trick. That's when ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.


WARNER: We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. It seems like so often we hear about religious groups fomenting doubt in the vaccine, and we don't hear enough about the opposite. There's an imam in England who's been using his Friday sermons to counter vaccine disinformation. This imam closed his mosque for services weeks before the national lockdown. The sermons are on Zoom.


SHEIKH NURU MOHAMMED: We should not allow conspiracy theories and fake news control and manage us. Let's rely on the experts to guide us, not someone threw something on Facebook or threw something on WhatsApp.

WARNER: Sheikh Nuru Mohammed was born in Ghana. He's been the imam at the Al-Abbas Islamic Centre in Birmingham for four years. His congregation is mostly Indian, and South Asians in England are among the communities hardest hit by the virus and the most hesitant to take the vaccine. The imam sat down with NPR correspondent Frank Langfitt - both, of course, wearing masks - and he said that some people didn't like him proselytizing for the vaccine.

MOHAMMED: So when I began speaking about it, not everybody was happy. I mean, (laughter) some people, but not everybody was happy. So I told them, no problem. I'm willing to talk to you. You can call me. You can have discussions via Zoom, Skype, whatever.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: What kind of questions did you get?

MOHAMMED: The first one is, Sheikh Nuru Mohammed, is this halal? So halal meaning, is this lawful as per the teachings of Islam or not?

LANGFITT: People had all kinds of questions for him.

MOHAMMED: This vaccination will change someone's hormones. It will cause damage to our brains.

LANGFITT: And they really started doing it after the U.K. approved the first vaccine. That was the Pfizer vaccine back in the beginning of December.

MOHAMMED: Why do we have to go for vaccination? We are here to live and die, so there is no need for this, really. Everything is in the hand of God.

LANGFITT: Now, some of these were things that Sheikh Nuru expected. But in some cases, I think he might've been surprised who he was hearing it from.

MURTAZA MASTER: Well, I guess the word is hesitant. I was cautious. There's loads of examples where pharmaceutical companies have not played it well.

LANGFITT: There was a guy I talked to named Murtaza Master. He's a pharmacist. He reads drug studies. And initially, he really didn't want to take the vaccine because it was developed and approved so quickly. And he also cited reasons others in the congregation were skeptical.

MASTER: When you have the systems that's prejudicial, you have some level of mistrust. So I'll give you an example. One person, he said, I've been here 20 years.

LANGFITT: That's here in the U.K.

MASTER: You want me to trust a system where I've worked very hard, and I've still not been promoted, and I see others getting promoted, and I feel I deserve that promotion.

LANGFITT: So it's a general distrust and a feeling that the system overall is unfair. Ergo, I'm not going to trust a vaccine.

MASTER: I'm saying that plays a part in it. There are many reasons, and I don't think there's one answer for it.

LANGFITT: What was it that persuaded you to be supportive of vaccines?

MASTER: The biggest difference that I must admit was the death in my family. When my mother passed away, it really - the penny dropped. And I think it brings it home that this is real. And the consequence of not having - being protected is death.

LANGFITT: Last year, this congregation lost 19 people. This year, so far, seven. So Murtaza came up with this idea that at that point nobody had tried - to turn the mosque into a vaccine distribution center.

MASTER: Why don't we do this through a mosque?

LANGFITT: The mosque ends up applying to the National Health Service to become a vaccination center, and the National Health Service thinks this is a great idea 'cause they realize how important it is to reach congregations like this. And then they open up the mosque's doors. And what they do is they lay out all of this cardboard wall to wall so that people can walk in and keep their shoes on. And they're not taking their shoes off because they're nonbelievers. And I've got to say this is the first time I've been in a mosque where I kept my shoes on. And they're doing that to protect the rugs.

MASTER: So we embedded - the whole idea was to embed this in a mosque and to attract the people in your community. But the first few weeks, we didn't have that.

LANGFITT: The first people that actually showed up for the vaccine were outsiders.

MASTER: Yes, yes.

LANGFITT: So were you surprised when you started seeing people who were maybe strangers come into the mosque?

MASTER: I wouldn't call them strangers because our job is to give vaccination to everybody. And it was a real pleasure, actually, to see so many people walking in through a mosque because it was perhaps their first opportunity to actually walk into a mosque.


LANGFITT: Sheikh Nuru says this decision to turn the mosque into a vax center raised suspicion among some of the congregants.

MOHAMMED: Some also are saying that, no, maybe you guys are getting a lot of money, you know? I said, no, no, no, no, no.

LANGFITT: Did some people think you were being bought?

MOHAMMED: Yeah, like, us and the executives.

LANGFITT: Were getting paid to open a center?

MOHAMMED: Yeah. I said, not at all. Never.


LANGFITT: This is a tricky path. I mean, what he was doing was trying to really, frankly, bluntly save his community, right? But in order to do that, he had to take certain risks. He had to work with the government, and he had to support something that members of his congregation had real doubts about. And so he had to confront that, and he confronted it in a variety of ways. And he decided he was going to start off and just get the jab - which is the way they call it here in the United Kingdom - the first dose himself.

MOHAMMED: When I took it, even I had some close friends who said, why? Why did you rush for it? You should have waited. I said, no, no, no. There is nothing to wait about.

LANGFITT: Did you also know when you did that that if it went well, it would convince a lot of people here to get it?

MOHAMMED: Yes, yes.

LANGFITT: Was that part of the strategy?

MOHAMMED: Absolutely. I mean, people wanted to see the reaction to make their mind. In fact, some - I remember some trying to touch it.

LANGFITT: Really? They touched your arm?

MOHAMMED: Yeah. I said, of course. There's nothing, man. Why are you worried? I'm OK. I'm strong. I'm happy. I'm looking forward to receiving the second jab. Sometime, we may think people are not watching us, not monitoring us, not listening to us. People are listening.

LANGFITT: It also sounds like they were looking for permission.

MOHAMMED: Yeah, you know, that's how it is. They were just looking for that. You know, why are you worried? Go. It's fine, man. We are all together in this.

LANGFITT: Almost all the elderly congregants at the mosque - they've already been vaccinated, and the mosque has been doing about a thousand doses a week, reaching tons of people in the community.

MOHAMMED: What really surprised me is the response. Unbelievable. We never thought this place was going to be busy like this.

LANGFITT: What was your expectation? Did you think people wouldn't come?

MOHAMMED: No, no, we think, you know, our people will definitely come because you are in, but maybe wider community might not come. Maybe they will choose another place.

LANGFITT: You think they wouldn't be comfortable?

MOHAMMED: Yes, especially those who have never been inside the mosque, and they don't know what mosque is all about.


WARNER: Sheikh Nuru had done all this with his own congregation in mind, trying to allay their fears and doubts about the vaccine. But in the end, he seems to have put one of his own fears to rest - that outsiders might not feel comfortable entering this place, even with shoes on, even for the few minutes it takes to get a shot.

MOHAMMED: But it's really exciting to see the response. It's unbelievable.

WARNER: In our next story, we go from trying to persuade the doubters to enter your house, to trying to make them beg to be let in. Exclusion as a persuasion tool when ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.


WARNER: We are back with NPR's ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. We are going to go now from Birmingham in the U.K. to Jerusalem, home of our correspondent Daniel Estrin. And whenever I talk to Daniel these days, I feel like I'm getting a dispatch from the future. Each week, it seems that Daniel is sending a report from some new place that's opened because enough people are vaccinated like this theater.


DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Once the lights dimmed in that theater and the actors came on stage, you just started hearing people cracking up in the theater.


ESTRIN: If that's not FOMO enough for you, Israeli PR has dubbed the country the Vaccination Nation. More than half of the population in Israel has gotten at least one dose. And since early February, all Israelis over age 16 have had access to the shot. Only, here's a problem - when you look at Israelis in their 20s, about a third of them still have not shown up for a first shot, and they were eligible to do that already a month ago. And about 28% of Israelis in their 30s also haven't gotten the shot yet.

I've spoken to officials who have said they're just flabbergasted. Like, we have all the vaccines that we need. All people have to do is show up. You know, in other countries, people are clamoring for these vaccines and dressing up as old people and whatever people are doing in the States. And here, they're, like, practically begging especially young people to come get the vaccine.

WARNER: Compare that to right over the border in the occupied West Bank. Israel has said it's not responsible for providing doses to Palestinian non-citizens, though Israel has opened some vaccination centers. And the scene in some of those centers can be chaotic, with people turned away who do not qualify. Meanwhile, Daniel says, in some Israeli vaccination centers, health authorities are so desperate for arms to jab, they are throwing parties.

UNIDENTIFIED DJ: (Singing) I don't care. I love it.

ESTRIN: Hello.


ESTRIN: We're from American radio.

They're inviting DJs to come to the vaccination center and play upbeat music, and they're doing giveaways - like, free headphones for people who come and get vaccinated. And I was really curious. Like, are people showing up for a vaccine just so they can get a free headphone - free set of headphones? And I mean, they're not. The answer is the DJ, the headphones, is not what is bringing people in. It's pressure. At the vaccination center, there was this long, long line outside.

And how old are you?


ESTRIN: And you're getting your first shot?

SHIR: Yeah.

ESTRIN: Why did you wait so long?

SHIR: Because I'm afraid, and I'm not so sure that (speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: She didn't know by the time she'd get to the front of the line whether she'd actually agree to get it. She'd heard all kinds of rumors about whether it would affect her fertility. That's a very popular false rumor going around Israel. But she said there was one thing that was getting her there.

SHIR: The only reason that I'm going to get this vaccine is because I want to go to the gym.

ESTRIN: She wanted to go to the gym.

SHIR: All of my friends do it only because of the gym.


ESTRIN: This is the new law of the land in Israel. Gyms, wedding halls, swimming pools, theaters, sporting events - you can't get in if you're not vaccinated or if you haven't recovered from the virus.


ESTRIN: I met one guy in the vaccination line who said, I don't like vaccines, I don't like taking pills, but I'm here because my wife's best friend is getting married, and they won't let us into the wedding unless we get vaccinated.


ESTRIN: A little bit of pressure goes a long way. So it works. The pressure works.

SHIR: Yes, the pressure works. (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: Unfortunately.

SHIR: Yeah.

WARNER: You know, we often talk about, like, a test of faith when your beliefs are tested. But I wonder if in a certain sense what's happening in that line is a test of disbelief. Like, you have these doubts, but now we're going to see just how willing you are to hold on to your doubts.

ESTRIN: Yeah, and honestly, I've been surprised by how easy it is for people to give up those doubts.

WARNER: Yeah, the call of the Peloton.



WARNER: And how is Israel enforcing that only those who have been vaccinated get to go into these places?

ESTRIN: The government is putting out what they call a green pass. And it has a QR code, and it's a government-issued document. Could you forge it? I don't know. It's kind of working on the honor system at the moment, but people are taking this really, really seriously.

I was at a theater. It was opening night. And theatergoers were coming in, and everyone was showing their green pass, and some of them had laminated them and printed - you know, you print it out at home. And I started chatting up the usher at the front, Adam Chenkin, asking these, like, 70-year-old Israelis to recite their ID number by heart to make sure that they're not cheating and bringing in someone else's pass.

ADAM CHENKIN: You know, it's without a picture, the green passport.

ESTRIN: So if they can recite their ID number by heart, then you know that it's...

CHENKIN: Yeah, I'm assuming it's - I'm assuming it's them.

ESTRIN: OK, good test. People know that these are very important documents.

CHENKIN: Yeah. It's like a - you know, it's more important than their ID now, I guess, these days. (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: I mean, I met people who were ecstatic.

ORIT KAMIR: We're hoping to do this every night, wherever possible, as much as possible.

ESTRIN: I met these two women, Tirtsa Posklinsky and Orit Kamir, and they were all dressed up. They were hungry for theater after so long.

KAMIR: And we're hoping that the rest of the world joins us as quickly as possible.

ESTRIN: Do you feel safer knowing that everyone in the audience will be with a green pass?

KAMIR: Oh, of course. Absolutely.

TIRTSA POSKLINSKY: That's essential to come for me. We've been waiting for people to take responsibility and do that.

KAMIR: Yeah, it would have been worrisome if we had to sit in a closed theater with lots of people breathing at us. And if you're dangerous to others, you should stay at home. I think that's only fair.

POSKLINSKY: Yeah, I think that's up to you, you know? If you feel like not taking a vaccine, along with that, you take the decision not to go out. This is just one choice.


WARNER: They want to know that the people around them have gotten the vaccine, whether they've been slowly persuaded to believe in the science or whether they just want to sit with other people in the dark indoors like normal.


WARNER: Today's show is produced by Derek Arthur and Justine Yan. Our editor is Luis Trelles. The ROUGH TRANSLATION team includes Jess Jiang and Carolyn McCusker. Thanks to Larry Kaplow, Kevin Beesley, Robert Krulwich and Sana Krasikov. We are saying goodbye to our colleague Derek Arthur, who started with us last year as an intern and ends as a lead producer. Derek, it has been a pleasure to work with you. We wish you the best in your next chapter.


WARNER: Neal Carruth, Didi Schanche, Chris Turpin and Anya Grundmann preside over our executive committee. Nicole Beemsterboer is our supervising producer. Our theme music was composed by John Ellis, additional music from Blue Dot Sessions, mastering by Alex Drewenskus. I'm Gregory Warner. Back in two weeks with more ROUGH TRANSLATION.

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