Vaccine hesitancy is not a fringe mentality. In January 2021, a global study from Imperial College London found that just over half the survey respondents said they would get a COVID-19 vaccine if it were made available to them that week. Just under half reported being worried about the potential side effects of a vaccine. And while overall the general sentiment seems to be shifting further in favour of getting the jab, a significant portion of the population remains either opposed or indifferent to the idea.
It’s worth noting that there are manifold reasons for this reluctance, many of which run deeper than just social media rumours, conspiracy theories and tinfoil hat cynicism. Socioeconomic inequality, structural racism and social disadvantage have all been identified as major barriers to vaccine uptake, as has a lack of effective public health messaging from governments and authorities. It’s also worth noting that while addressing this problem is complex, there are some solutions – like education, empathy and communication, for example – that come more highly recommended than others – like doughnuts.
And yet around the world, governments and private institutions are taking the carrot and stick approach to vaccine hesitancy, persuading the fence sitters and naysayers to line up and get a COVID-19 shot by dangling some kind of material benefit in front of their noses. Here are just a few of the wildest incentives that have been proposed so far.
Last month, Washington State in the U.S. rolled out a “Joints for Jabs” campaign, which temporarily allowed retailers to give free weed to adults who got vaccinated at their in-store clinics. The promotion, which finished earlier this week, allowed participating shops to issue one pre-rolled cannabis joint to any customer who received a first or second COVID-19 vaccine dose.
In Michigan, one medical marijuana dispensary similarly offered a free pre-rolled joint to anyone who showed their proof of vaccination, claiming it was their way of “saying ‘thank you’ for helping to end this pandemic and getting us back to normal.”
Elsewhere in the United States, governments have tried seducing citizens into getting the jab with the promise of a free drink. Connecticut, Louisiana and Minnesota have all launched promotions stating that vaccinated adults can get one alcoholic beverage at participating outlets. Last month President Joe Biden endorsed a promotional giveaway by brewing company Anheuser-Busch that pledged to “buy Americans 21+ a round of beer” once the government’s 70 percent vaccination goal was met.
A bar in the Israeli capital of Tel Aviv announced a similar incentive, promising “free beer and free shots for those vaccinated,” while a pub in Melbourne, Australia was recently instructed by the country’s health watchdog to stop offering free beer to customers who have been vaccinated against COVID-19.
Meanwhile, in West Virginia, Governor Jim Justice announced a vaccination sweepstakes that included such all-American prizes as custom-outfitted trucks, weekend vacations at state parks and lifetime hunting and fishing licenses. It also offered up five custom hunting rifles and five custom hunting shotguns. To be eligible, entrants must have received at least their first shot of Pfizer or Moderna, or just one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
A shooting range in Illinois also set up a mobile vaccination site and pledged to give away 100 free targets to anyone who got the vaccine there.
“If you come and get vaccinated at the World Shooting and Recreational Complex vax site – which is already completely free – you'll get 100 FREE targets of trap, skeet, or sporting clays, to use any time before the end of October,” said Governor JB Pritzker.
Tycoons and companies from Hong Kong’s private sector have set up similar lotteries in a bid to incentivise people to get vaxxed. At one point the city’s leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, told a weekly briefing that “the value of various lotteries or reward programs, we have learned from news reports, has exceeded HK$120 million ($15 million).”
Prizes include cash payouts, iPhones and in one case a total of more than 11.33kg of 9,999 pure gold bars. The first prize winner in that particular draw will receive a total of 2.26 kilograms worth more than HK$1 million ($128,000).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, these incentives appear to be working: Bloomberg reports that total bookings for vaccines in Hong Kong, including both first and second doses, saw a pickup in late May as businesses around the city began taking part in the campaign.
The Hong Kong arm of Australian industrial property firm Goodman Group has also announced a lottery that is open to all Hong Kong identity card holders who are fully vaccinated by 31 August 2021. Prizes in that draw, which is set to take place in September, include a Tesla Model 3 Long Range car valued at over $64,365.
CoStar Group, a U.S.-based company that provides real-estate data, has also started offering daily prizes in an effort to lure workers back to the office. Anyone who is vaccinated and in the workspace is eligible for the daily prize, which includes a “shiny new Tesla” as well as $10,000 cash prizes and an all-expenses-paid Barbados vacation via private plane.
Cows, chickens and picked fish
Elsewhere, vaccine incentives have taken the form of animals – alive and dead. In the Mae Chaem district of Chiang Mai, in Thailand’s far north, one lucky vaccinated villager will be chosen every week for the rest of the year to take home a young cow valued at around 10,000 baht ($305).
“This is the best gift ever,” 65-year-old Inkham Thongkham told Reuters after winning a one-year-old female cow in the raffle.
In the Indonesian town of Cipanas, where authorities have found it especially difficult to persuade people that the vaccines are safe and halal, every senior who fronts up for a shot is given a live chicken as recompense.
“Elderly people don’t want to be vaccinated for various reasons, some say they want to but don’t come, some are even afraid,” the local district police chief, Galih Aprian, told Reuters. “So we reward (their participation) with chickens.”
In the Netherlands, early batches of young Dutch herring – which are typically gutted, soused and consumed raw as a traditional delicacy – have been distributed to vaccination centres as an encouragement for people to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The popular fish has been offered up to staff and everyone who shows up for their shot.
“A herring for a jab,” Agnes Leewis, the director of the Dutch fish marketing board, told the Guardian. “Who could possibly resist?”
Millions of dollars
The most popular incentive, it seems, is cold hard cash. And some places are offering up a lot more than a measly sum to try and get the anti-vaxxers over the line.
In Arkansas, in the U.S., vaccinated citizens were given the opportunity to enter a lottery that had cash prizes worth $1.5 million. The aforementioned lottery in West Virginia came with a $1.58 million grand prize. And Ohio’s “Vax-a-Million” lottery offered multiple million-dollar prizes and full scholarships to adults and teens, respectively, who got the Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
The second winner in the “Vax-a-Million” lottery, an Ohio resident named Jonathan Carlyle, explicitly told the media that it was these cash incentives that drove him to get the jab.
“I kept hemming and hawing about it, and I work all the time,” Carlyle told the Toledo Blade. “And when the Vax-a-Million thing started I immediately went down there and got it. It pushed me over the edge.”
Regardless of its efficacy though, not everyone agrees as to whether this reward system is an effective or desirable way of persuading otherwise reluctant people to get vaxxed. In an article for The New York Times last year, behavioural economist George Loewenstein and associate professor of marketing Cynthia Cryder warned that rewarding vaccinated people with prizes or payouts could ultimately send the wrong message.
“Humans don’t respond to incentives like rats pressing levers for food; they try to interpret what being offered payment means,” they wrote. “In this case, the offer risks implying that the vaccine is not a thing of value.”
Diego S. Silva, a lecturer in bioethics at the University of Sydney, pointed out that while the incentive system itself may not necessarily be problematic – as long as the incentives in question don’t pose any problems – the tactic could be indicative of a bigger issue.
“So long as the person is freely choosing to take the vaccine and understands the benefits/risks, then I don't see incentives, per se, as a bad thing,” Silva told VICE World News over email. “ I don't really think it’s harmful – not directly, anyway. [But] I do think that it’s often a waste of money and is used as a distraction by governments for system failures associated with their rollout efforts. So perhaps indirectly harmful, but not harmful in-and-of-itself.”
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