Róisín Ingle: Hushed conversations about vaccine hesitancy are happening

Vaccine hesitancy is real – and so is back-to-normal hesitancy, I can attest

I’ve had a few hushed conversations with vaccine hesitant, or VH, people lately. Please do not mistake them for anti-vaxxers. The VH people I’ve been talking to don’t wear tinfoil headgear – or not so I’ve noticed, anyway. They don’t think Covid is a cover-up or that Earth is flat. They have taken vaccines in the past and they probably will do again, but they just aren’t sure about taking the Covid ones. Call them misguided, deluded or even stupid if you like, but they have a lot of genuine – to their minds anyway – reasons to be hesitant.

These conversations have been secret ones, mostly conducted in whispers or through swiftly deleted voice messages. This is because the VH people I know are convinced that if they expose even a hint of their hesitancy they will be cancelled, shamed, ostracised and ridiculed. (And that’s just in their family WhatsApp groups.)

Everywhere they go, VH people see others announcing that they can’t wait to get vaccinated – “Hook it to my veins! I would take a shot of red lemonade in my arm at this stage!” – and their more tentative VH approach to the AstraZeneca or Pfizer jabs goes against the prevailing mood. It’s an awkward place in which to find yourself during this phase of a global pandemic. With funeral pyres in India and poorer countries crying out for vaccines, there are limited reserves of sympathy for the VH perspective.

We're worried that because we are not dying to get back into pubs or host dinner parties or dance in sweaty, confined spaces that we'll be cancelled, shamed, and ridiculed

The VH people I've spoken to are men and women around my age, in their 40s or 50s, the age group that is about to start getting the jabs. However, an online poll by NUIG earlier this week seemed to suggest women under 30 were showing more hesitancy.

If hesitancy is an issue, then so is the silence around it. Having experienced the benefits of people being able to air their honestly held views and questions through two recent referendums on abortion and same-sex marriage, it seems unfortunate that these VH people are now afraid to express their concerns out loud. If you can’t ask questions in the usual safe places you might, after all, end up going to less reliable sources for answers.

The VH crowd are not the only ones whispering. There is, in case you haven’t noticed, a lot of back-to-normal hesitancy, aka BTNH, going on, but for some reason – and it’s an outrage, really – nobody is conducting polls on that. We speak in whispers too. We’re worried that because we are not dying to get back into pubs or host dinner parties, or dance in sweaty, confined spaces, we’ll be cancelled, shamed, ostracised and ridiculed for our lack of enthusiasm for postpandemic reintegration. We also have questions we’re afraid to ask, like, “How do I say no to any impending social invites without looking like a total buzzkill?”

My own BTNH has escalated to a point where I feel an urgent need to outline some of my own hesitancies in order to break the chilling silence around this issue:

Handshake hesitancy I'm not going back there. I've had the hand squeezed off me – usually by men – so hard that the imprint of the other person's paw was burnt on to mine. I've had the half-hearted handshake (not gender-specific) that would make you wonder what was the point of it at all. I will not be shaking hands into the future. I'll be sticking to a casual verbal greeting – "howiya, horse" – and a noncommittal wave. And the best thing is that refusing a handshake will not be seen as rude. When the hand is offered, I'll just swerve it, saying "Bloody Covid", and everyone will understand, even when it's 2033 and we're worried about some other virus entirely.

Kissing hello hesitancy I don't know how any of that nonsense was ever imported into Ireland in the first place. Kissing hello is the most un-Irish and unhygienic greeting imaginable. And don't get me started on air kissing. Luckily, "the doctor said I can't on account of my Covid anxiety syndrome" can be justifiably employed as a handy excuse on such occasions and, let's face it, many others.

High heels hesitancy I was never a massive fan of the high heel but, going forward, I will not be entertaining heels of any kind, including platforms or wedges. And I say this as a total short-arse who could really use the extra inches. Instead, I am going to start investing in my wardrobe of runners. At really fancy gatherings (the ones I can't say no to) I will wear pristine runners that communicate the message both that I've made an effort but also that I value my arches more than any additional height benefits or calf elongation.

As I think the above clearly shows, the last traumatic year and a bit has done very strange things to many people, including this one. From that perspective, hesitancy around certain aspects of this next phase is perhaps more understandable than shameful. I will keep talking and listening to the VH crowd and I hope, as a fully signed-up member of the BTNH club, I can continue to express my own fears around going back “out there” without fear of cancellation.

The alternative is a damaging kind of silence. And that really would be chilling.