Although women are widely considered to be less eager to get a COVID-19 vaccine than other segments of the population, a Trent University health humanities researcher is warning that it’s not prudent to make sweeping generalizations when attempting to overcome vaccine hesitancy.
“Women are not a homogenous group – we need an intersectional lens to understand why women might decline a vaccine for reasons that go beyond gender,” says Dr. Kelly McGuire, an associate professor of English and Gender & Social Justice, who was recently featured in the Washington Post
While many celebrated the approval of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines late last year, polls have shown that one quarter of respondents identifying as women indicated that they were unlikely to take a coronavirus vaccine.
Prof. McGuire says the easiest explanation is that white, middle-class women of privilege are well-represented in the anti-vaccination movement but adds that more complex factors may be at work, especially for women of colour.
Some hesitancy, for example, may be rooted in systemic racism and how people of colour and Indigenous peoples are treated in the medical system.
“There are issues of access as well as structural and historical reasons,” she says. “Some of these women are from communities that are underserviced and nobody has reached out to them, they may not have been adequately involved in testing and there may be a lack of consideration about why they might be hesitant.”
Social media research shows men are also anti-vaxxers
Recent Trent research shows that men are just as entrenched in the anti-vaccination movement, which is linked to other movements opposing lockdowns and mandatory masks.
Last summer, Prof. McGuire and her graduate research assistant Albana Stafa tracked vaccine opinions on social media by exploring jokes, memes, conversations, debates and groups devoted to the topic.
By searching key words on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Tik Tok, Ms. Stafa found that most memes and jokes associated vaccine resistance with white middle-class women.
Yet further research shows that, in all, vaccine-hesitant opinions were well represented in accounts belonging to users identifying as male and were especially strong amongst young millennial and Gen Z men.
“Women continue to be the face of vaccine hesitancy even though the actual picture is much more complex,” Prof. McGuire says. “This is a novel coronavirus with a new and unfamiliar vaccine biotechnology, which is raising new concerns.”
Pop culture influences vaccine optimism
Pop culture may be to blame for a false sense of optimism that everyone will want a vaccine when they are available.
Prof. McGuire makes this argument, and singles out the 2011 film Contagion, in a piece published by the online health and medical humanities journal Synapsis and in a separate essay "COVID-19, Contagion, and Vaccine Optimism," which is to be published in the Journal of Medical Humanities in a special section of the March 2021 issue.
Prof. McGuire argues that films such as Contagion oversimplify the narrative by telling stories of deadly diseases and how humanity lines up for, and sometimes fights over, vaccines to create a Hollywood ending where the world returns to normal.
This falsely reinforces the idea that compliance is inevitable, she says, because the stories don’t address the many reasons people decline or are hesitant about vaccines.
Applications are still being accepted for Trent’s Gender & Social Justice program. This program gives students the opportunity to explore gender relations and women’s experiences across cultures and nations, throughout history, and in contemporary societies.