Psychologist: Pressure needs to be put on the unvaccinated

Mati Heidmets.
Mati Heidmets. Source: Ülo Josing /ERR

Tallinn University professor, psychologist Mati Heidmets says that Estonia should have taken tough steps against anti-vaccination sentiment a long time ago as the minority is expected to obey the majority in the end. Heidmets says Estonia remains in the Eastern European mindset where the state is expected to exert pressure and offer guidelines.

Is our lower vaccination rate when compared to the Nordics a sign that Estonians are less trustful of their state than Finns? Are we more akin to Latvians and Poles than Finns and Swedes?

Yes, people trust the state and scientist to a lesser degree than they do in the Nordics. Estonia is still very much Eastern Europe and nowhere near the Nordics in this regard. If in the Nordics, ca 75 percent of residents have received at least one vaccine dose, it is between 50 and 60 percent in Eastern Europe. Estonia's 57 percent places us firmly in the middle of the latter group.

We are used to Estonia being among the top 30 countries in the world based on various comparable international indicators (such as the human development index). While we are somewhere in the seventh tenth when it comes to immunization. It is just embarrassing!

A lower vaccination level is a reflection of cultural background, people have learned to love and cherish their country in different ways. These differences manifest more clearly in crisis situations. And we can see in Estonia that finding common ground and purpose in difficult moments is not easy.

As Eastern Europeans, do we need an iron fist to land on the table? For example, if the Estonian government recommends wearing a mask in crowded places, almost no one does, while ordering people to wear a mask sees 90 percent compliance…

Looking to the authorities and waiting for orders and guidelines has been a disciplinary force for a long time here. But we also have people capable of thinking for themselves and who realize their health behavior is not stuck behind a government decision. They wear a mask without having to be ordered to do so.

Does this mean Lithuania has done the right thing by putting far stronger pressure on the unvaccinated in your mind? They cannot visit shopping malls without being tested. Latvia is going down the same path and will have zones for vaccinated people only.

Yes, I believe Estonia should have taken tougher steps much sooner. The lives of anti-vaxxers spewing utter nonsense need to be made difficult. We spent a hundred years combating smoking and the result is that a person can smoke in either a glass box or outside today. It is power and pressure that keeps one part of society in line in Eastern Europe. There is nothing else to do if social self-regulation does not work.

I have heard it proposed that Lithuania's stronger national sentiment is also behind their success. Better social preparedness coupled with the authorities maintaining a tough line could help explain why we have fallen behind the Lithuanians. Estonian nationalists come off especially odd in this context, writing bothered articles about our dwindling population in the morning before attending anti-vaccination protests in the afternoon that can only make the problem worse.

Estonians have often been described as great individualists. Perhaps it is our inability to think collectively.

I dare not say we are all like that. It boils down to the relative importance of various outlooks. The Nordics are on top when it comes to vaccination, followed by the rest of Europe, then Eastern Europe, then Russia and Ukraine. It is a broader reflection of a society's health or vitality. Societies where people think beyond personal well-being tend to do better.

The unvaccinated include a lot of different people, meaning that different approaches are in order. I have noticed three main groups.

First, opponents or people who have not yet passed through their personal enlightenment age and whose thinking is not governed by empirical knowledge but rather rumors, golems and nightmares.

Secondly, you have the disassociated. People for whom things outside their personal bubble simply don't matter. They do not identify with their people or society and are against everything mandated "from above," including vaccination. Arguments like "let us safeguard our elderly" or "let's make Estonia healthier together" mean nothing to them.

The third group is made up of people who are hesitant and frightened. People who both want to get vaccinated and don't. So they hesitate and keep postponing the decision.

Efforts to explain and convince the opponents and disassociated are meant to fail. Pressure and coercion are in order instead; for example, by making the lives of unvaccinated people even more difficult. Socially dangerous stupidity has a price. However, when it comes to the third group that likely includes a notable part of elderly people, individual communication and explanation can pay off. We should contribute along those lines.

Can you define Varro Vooglaid's affiliation based on these three groups?

I believe it is a mix of the first and second group. Modern science does not occupy a central place where Vooglaid is coming from. His rhetoric does not resonate in me because I believe science and credible information make for the only lever that can help solve such crises. Other approaches, no matter where they come from, are rather secondary when it comes to finding solutions.

Russian-speakers are visibly less prone to be vaccinated even when it comes to young people. What to do to get things moving in Maardu or Ida-Viru County? We cannot put all Russian-speakers in a glass box so to speak.

A third of the population has been vaccinated with at least one shot in Russia, which is more or less the same as the vaccination coverage of Russian-speaking people in Estonia. Perhaps we are dealing with some sort of a cross-border cultural pattern where there is even less trust in the authorities and more faith in witchcraft. I feel that emotional footage from crowded hospitals no longer admitting so-called regular patients could ignite the soul of Russian people. We could show such scenes more often, explain that it is the reality today and tomorrow.

Have we been too modest when describing the consequences of the virus? Should we show people the final minutes of patients who are about to succumb to oxygen deprivation due to Covid?

Yes. Attitudes toward the consequences of the virus have been soft and vague. We have been reluctant to demonstrate the horror of what really happens to people with severe cases of the coronavirus. It should also be emphasized how other conditions are going untreated with colossal cost to society, that collective stupidity comes at a price.

Furthermore, we cannot keep wasting resources trying to convince people who are immune. I believe the time has come for tougher measures against the group that is fundamentally against vaccination, especially if they are promoting it.

Wouldn't tightening the screws have the opposite effect? It would only work to fuel the confrontation. For example, anti-vaccination rallies are usually meetings of just a handful of people in one corner of the Freedom Square. Passers-by and journalists tend to outnumber protesters. They cannot be compared to rallies in Paris, Berlin or even Vilnius.

It demonstrates the modest relative importance of anti-vaxxers in society – roughly a tenth of the population. The principle of democracy is that while everyone must be allowed to speak their mind, the voice of the majority will decide things in the end. And if the majority has decided in favor of vaccination, those who refuse must feel discomfort as a result of their choice.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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