Is it okay to ask someone if they’re vaccinated? The answer might seem simple, but it really depends on the context. Not everyone who’s declined to get the jab is anti-vax; while conspiracy theories are rampant right now, for some there are legitimate – and often personal – reasons for hesitancy.
But when your health’s at stake, these are important conversations to have.
“At the moment, if somebody is unvaccinated it has implications for your own health and the health of those around you,” says associate professor Margie Danchin, from the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences.
“I think it is reasonable to ask those you’re having a picnic with, for example, or socialising with whether or not they are vaccinated. But, of course, it is a potentially charged discussion.”
Danchin is the group leader of vaccine acceptance, uptake and policy at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute. In the last decade, Danchin consulted numerous adults in a clinical setting, ranging from those who are mildly hesitant to those against vaccination altogether. She says it’s important to think about how you start the conversation – and to do so in advance.
“If you’re meeting someone for a picnic or for a drink, you want to have this conversation well before you arrive at the pub or on the grass because you don’t want to have conflict face to face,” she says. “You need to try to have that conversation ahead of time so that they’ve got space to respond, and so it’s respectful.
“You may just choose to say, ‘Unfortunately, if you’re not vaccinated, the rules are such that we can’t meet, or you won’t be able to get into the pub.’ Then you can open the door to ask them why they’re not vaccinated.”
How would you feel if the tables were turned?
Dr Simon Longstaff, executive director of The Ethics Centre in Sydney, says there are a couple of things we might consider before launching into a conversation about vaccines.
“There’s an initial issue of reciprocity,” he says. “Are you asking someone to disclose something to you that you would not be prepared to disclose to them? The second issue is: Would asking this question be likely to cause distress to another person? In other words, do I feel like I’m trespassing in a way that would be inappropriate? Or, do I feel that given the nature of the relationship, or the context, that this is a perfectly unremarkable thing to do?”
The fact that you think it may cause some distress does not mean you wouldn’t ask the question, says Longstaff. “You could say, ‘Do you mind if I ask?’ which shows respect for the possibility that they might mind.
“Also, do you have a reason to ask the question? If you’re on a Zoom call, for example, you’ve got no reason to know other than to satisfy your curiosity. Whereas if you’re planning to meet up, it’s not a selfish question based on that notion of reciprocity – you’re as concerned for them as you are for yourself.”
Be considerate and non-judgmental
More than 60 per cent of us – 12 million Australians – are now fully vaccinated. Medical background and access included, there are legitimate reasons some people may not be vaccinated. So it’s important to remember that “no” doesn’t necessarily mean someone is anti-vax.
“Allow them the opportunity to speak freely, and state their concerns, without jumping on them at the first thing they say,” offers Danchin. “This is based on vaccination science, through research, and there’s a whole approach to having a conversation with someone who is concerned about vaccines. The most important thing is to allow them to express their point of view on what they’re concerned about.”
It’s also key to acknowledge those concerns. For example, you could say: “I understand why you may have those concerns.” Danchin says, “That’s when they either invite you to have that conversation or not. In a clinical consultation, I will always remind the person of the severity of the disease, so it’s not all focused on fear and concern about the vaccine. At the end, I will say that I still think it’s the best thing but obviously it’s your choice. A personal conversation, either with a friend or family member, could derail and stop well before that point.”
If we’re vaccinated, do we need to know if others are too?
“That is every person’s decision to make for themself,” says Danchin. “If you’ve had two doses, and everyone in your family has had two doses of vaccine, you may not care. But people have very different thresholds, especially if they have a new baby, young kids who are unvaccinated, or a more vulnerable family member who has chronic medical illnesses. Everybody’s threshold will differ. It’s about your own personal risk.”
She adds: “You should only be concerned whether somebody is vaccinated or not if you think they’re going to potentially put you at risk, or the people around you at risk.
“It’s also really important to appreciate that people sit on a vaccine hesitancy spectrum. You will have very different engagement success depending on where that person sits on the spectrum.”
Is it worth ending relationships with anyone over vaccines?
“If you’re in an intimate relationship with someone who says they don’t want to tell you, it sets up a boundary which might be a bit of a surprise,” says Longstaff, who thinks it could be worth ending a relationship if it reveals some aspect of their character or history which you feel is incompatible with yours.
“Absolutely not,” says Danchin, who has a family member who is medically vulnerable but has chosen not to get vaccinated.
“I did get very upset and it nearly threatened the end of our relationship,” she tells us. “I managed to turn that around and say we’ll put it to one side. I do not think it is worth threatening your relationship with people, but that is a personal threshold – some people feel incredibly strongly about vaccination that they can’t get past that.”