How to Improve COVID-19 Mass Vaccination Experience

People with their backs to the audience sit in rows at a mass vaccination site. Monitors can be seen in the distant background

Vaccination, effective self-isolation, and adequate socioeconomic support are key public health measures that are proven to reduce the impact of COVID-19. Vaccination is safe,1  and scientifically shown to reduce death, hospitalisation, and severe health issues arising from COVID-19. Vaccination is currently available to everyone in Australia aged over 16; from 13 September 2021, it will be extended to 12 to 15 year olds. I’m very lucky, and thankful, to be fully vaccinated. Vaccination itself was quick, easy, and painless. Health staff delivered excellent service. In particular, the clinicians who carried out the vaccine were compassionate, warm, patient, and good humoured. I urge everyone who is medically able to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

Vaccination efforts have been radically advanced in the state of New South Wales (NSW), due to the current Delta outbreak. As of today, 4 September 2021, vaccination doses have already reached 7.3 million in NSW alone.2 Mass vaccination sites are producing extraordinary results given current constraints, including a strict lockdown in Southwestern Sydney.3

Nevertheless, there is a pressing need to rapidly increase vaccination. To date,4 62.1% of people over 16 years have received one vaccine dose in Australia, and only 37.8% are fully vaccinated. Health inequities undermine vaccine efforts. I’ve previously detailed that policing patterns are unfairly targeting racial minorities in working class suburbs, illustrating how race and class impact the management of vaccination.5 As I show below, there has been a lack of vaccine supply and outreach to priority groups at high-risk of COVID-19, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, people living in aged care and disability group homes, and rural and remote regions.

Many countries are struggling to entice people to return for their second vaccination. For example, in early April 2021, five million Americans6 had not gotten their second dose. By early August Britain is lagging behind France on second doses.7

Systemic support could improve vaccination, especially through federal funding to support people who are unemployed or precariously employed, so they are not forced to keep struggling until they are fully vaccinated. Alongside institutional responses, small physical and behavioural tweaks could improve the public experience at mass vaccination sites.

Today, I present a visual ethnography of my experience at a mass vaccination site in Sydney, which took place from late-July to mid-August 2021. Ethnography is the study of people’s behaviour and organisations in their everyday setting. My analysis draws on two ethnographic methods: participant observation and visual sociology.

Participant observation involves watching people, objects, a physical environment, and texts in their natural setting (that is, outside of a lab).8(pp109-120) Researchers can assume various roles to carry out this analysis, from a complete participant who joins in, and records, all activities, to complete observer (someone who watches, but does not join).9 Since I reflect on my own vaccination here, I am closer to the complete participant end of the spectrum. I documented my impressions of the environment, and the procedures used to organise the public through their vaccination.

I also used visual sociology; a methodology for collecting visual data to analyse social phenomena.10 In this case, I took photos and short videos of my experience in line while I waited to be vaccinated, but I did not directly film other people or staff. I did not record audio, personal data, or any other material that would be identifying.

The aim of this visual ethnography is to provide behavioural insights on how the mass vaccination process might be improved. Behavioural insights is the application of social and behavioural sciences to improve delivery of policy, programs, and services. I discuss some of the behavioural barriers in the mass vaccination process, especially things that could potentially contribute to people delaying coming back for their second dose. I also discuss how improved behavioural cues and messages could enhance the vaccination experience.

Continue reading How to Improve COVID-19 Mass Vaccination Experience

Using sociology to think critically about Coronavirus COVID-19 studies

The lower two-thirds is an oil painting style photo of an older woman with grey hair. She has her back to us and is reading a piece of paper with a magnifying glass. The top third is the title to this post

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of public sociology because of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. What follows has been in the works for a couple of months. As previously promised, I’m now coming back to this because of the ongoing need to increase public awareness about the science of the pandemic.

Earlier in the year, I worked with some colleagues on an early literature review scoping policy responses to the pandemic, and I’ve provided feedback on evolving policy research. As an applied sociologist, my focus has been on how race, culture, disability, gender, and other socioeconomics impact how people understand and act on public health initiatives, as well as ethical considerations of COVID research “on the run.”

Since then, I’ve been keeping up with both the research and media coverage of public health responses. I’ve been providing summaries of unfolding information on my social media (primarily Facebook and Instagram stories, as well as Twitter). This started partly to address some of the misconceptions I was seeing amongst my friends and family and I’ve kept this up as it’s been the most efficient way to help people in my life better understand what the restrictions mean for them, or to correct confusing reports.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation. People are hungry for practical advice, but don’t know who to trust (they don’t know where to look for credible resources), or they feel overwhelmed with too many conflicting directions. This is known as information overload, and it leads to poor decision-making.

One of the patterns that has been especially concerning are people writing social media posts, op eds and even setting up consultancies to profiteer from COVID-19 without any health training or policy experience. This contributes to public distrust, conspiracy theories or poor discussion that is not based on evidence. People are choosing to confirm their pre-existing beliefs, rather than engaging critically with scientific information that challenges their perspective. This is known as confirmation bias. It stops people from considering new information and different points of view that might be helpful to their wellbeing.

Reading original scientific journal articles is not always possible as there is often a paywall. Plus, science papers are, by definition, published for the academic community. The language is technical, and the principles can be hard to follow for people who are not subject matter experts. This makes it more important for scientists who have access to write about science research in an accessible manner and to share findings through different communities.

While data on COVID-19 are evolving, and no one can claim to be a definitive COVID-19 expert, the best sources to trust are official sources, such as state Health Departments, epidemiologists, virologists, health practitioners who are providing front-line services (such as Aboriginal-controlled health organisations), and policy analysts who work on COVID-19 responses. Additionally, reliable news sites include the ABC News Australia live blog, Croakey and individual health researchers, such as epidemiologist Dr Zoe Hyde (University of Western Australia) on Twitter.

If you read about a study, how do you know if you can trust the conclusions? What’s the best approach if you wanted to write about a study’s findings for a broader audience, whether it’s your friends and family reading your Facebook feed, or an article in a major news site? Today’s post gives tips for how to read a study using critical thinking principles from sociology, and things to consider if you want to write about, or share, studies that you read about.

Continue reading Using sociology to think critically about Coronavirus COVID-19 studies

Sociology of the Anti-Vaccination Movement

The state of Victoria in Australia is facing a measles outbreak due to parents in relatively progressive suburbs choosing not to vaccinate their children. The anti-vaccination movement has its roots in Western societies in the myth that vaccines cause autism. The science demonstrating that there is no link between autism and vaccines is peer-reviewed and well-established. The original paper that made the assertion that such a link existed was retracted by the original publisher, The Lancet, due to fraud by Andrew Wakefield and his team. Given that the myths of vaccines have been thoroughly debunked, what is behind the anti-vaxxer movement? I start by discussing the scientific evidence about the fraud that inspired the anti-vaxxer movement before providing a broad sketch of the public who don’t believe in vaccination. Sociology of the Anti-Vaccination Movement Continue reading Sociology of the Anti-Vaccination Movement

Demographic Profile of Anti-Vaccination Movement in USA

Source: Pew Research.

Yesterday I wrote about the fraud and science myths that inspired the anti-vaccination movement. Since I’ve gotten a few questions about the demographics of anti-immunisation groups, here is a broad sketch of the American public who don’t believe in vaccination. Scientific data show that anti-vaxxers come from all walks of life. There are no significant differences along gender, education, religion, race and income, though there are some differences in terms of political ideology. The strongest difference is in age.

As promised, I will later provide a more in-depth analysis of the sociology of anti-vaxxers, addressing educational and policy intervention. The main issue I highlight here is that the biggest divide is lack of trust in science amongst younger parents. Continue reading Demographic Profile of Anti-Vaccination Movement in USA

Fraud That Inspired the Anti-Vaccination Movement


Any time there is an article about vaccine initiatives, a segment of the public begin to shout about government conspiracies and their perception of nefarious science. What is behind the anti-vaxxer movement? I will eventually write a post on the sociology of why this movement has gained support and what can be done about it, but for now I reproduce my comments from another thread filled with these conspiracy theories. My post below presents scientific evidence about the fraud that inspired the anti-vaxxer movement.

Continue reading Fraud That Inspired the Anti-Vaccination Movement

The Sociology of Why People Don’t Believe Science

This the story of how sociology can improve public science. I discuss the social science research explaining why some sections of the general public resist research evidence. As some of you know, I’m one of around 20 Moderators who run Science on Google+. Our Community is managed by practising scientists and our membership includes researchers as well as members of the public who are interested in science. I run the Social Science stream (along with Chris Robinson who created the Community). Our Community aims to improve the quality of science posts and public outreach, by connecting the public to real scientists. This week, we celebrated the fact that our Community has grown to 200,000 members. The Community receives numerous posts each day. We want to move discussion away from people sharing their personal opinions on “fluff” science pieces that often end up distorted in the news, and instead we’d like to focus on the relevance, validity and reliability of peer reviewed science. Invariably, we get people coming to the Community specifically looking to argue about how all science is wrong (usually with regards to social science), corrupt (often regarding life sciences), or “just a theory” (creationist arguments against the physical sciences).

These critics do not focus on the scientific content of a study. They focus on moral and cultural arguments, which to them are scientific. For example, when discussing research on gender inequality in science, there’s a variation of: “In my engineering class there’s only two women. I think that most women just aren’t interested in science. That’s not sexism to point out the truth.” (Yes, it is sexist.) When discussing research on climate change: “There’s inconclusive evidence on this!” (No, the evidence is compelling.)

Judging you

Most of these people do not use credible scientific research to back up their claims, but they evoke some general statistics (“everyone knows…” and “countless studies show”).We ask for links to peer reviewed science, which never come.  Sometimes they post links to conspiracy videos that have no scholarly merit. Despite their lack of evidence, these people are thoroughly convinced that they are scientists or that they are very well informed on a topic. They cite ideas of science from popular culture (“science is about questioning everything!”). Otherwise they draw on something they heard in the news or they revert to personal anecdotes and subjective observations.

These critics are the exception, as most of our Community members are genuinely curious in science and learning. The problem is that these anti-scientist “scientists” take up a lot of time and they derail discussions. So what motives them?

One of our colleagues and a Curator for the excellent Science Sunday, wrote a fantastic post about how social psychology concepts might explain why people refuse to engage with scientific evidence. Chad invited me to comment on his post, and this has led me to crystallise thoughts that I’ve had circling my head since I started blogging seven years a go. Other than a sheer love of the social sciences, why bother with public science? Who is our audience? Does it “work” and how do we measure its success? How can we improve it?

My post will discuss the sociology of beliefs, values and attitudes to describe the cultural, institutional and historical ways in which the public has engaged with science. I present two case studies of “hot topics” that usually draw anti-science comments to our Community regarding gender inequality and genetically modified foods. I show how cultural beliefs about trust and risk influence the extent to which people accept scientific evidence. I go on to discuss how sociology can help improve public science outreach. Continue reading The Sociology of Why People Don’t Believe Science