Countries around the world are relying on a hybrid strategy of imposing lockdowns and scaling up testing to combat COVID-19 but this strategy has severe socio-economic consequences and it is not sustainable. Experts suggest that instead of waiting for a vaccine to be developed, it is better to develop a “social vaccine” against the virus. So, let’s understand what is a social vaccine?
The term social vaccine is a metaphor that is used to refer to a series of social and behavioural measures that can be employed by the government to mobilise the society towards a common goal. For instance, forced imposition of social distancing through a lockdown is a type of social vaccine. Such social and behavioural changes have been successfully used in countries such as Uganda, Thailand and even in India in the fight against the HIV AIDS pandemic. A successful social vaccine was developed against the HIV AIDS pandemic through a couple of strategies: one was through Information, Education and Communication measures or IEC, and the other was through Targeted Social and Behavioural Change Communication or SPCC.
Just like COVID-19, HIV AIDS was also a zoonotic disease that jumped from monkeys and chimpanzees to human beings. Reportedly, this pandemic disease occurred as early as the 1920s. But it was only in 1981 that the epidemic was detected and in 1985 it was considered as a global pandemic. Between 1981 and 2018, the HIV AIDS pandemic reportedly infected around 75 million people across the world and claimed 32 million lives.
Similar to the COVID-19 pandemic, the HIV AIDS pandemic also caused a lot of global panic in the initial stages. The panic occurred primarily because there were no diagnostics which could quickly diagnose the disease and there was no viable treatment or cure or vaccine against the disease. Due to the sexual mode of transmission of HIV AIDS, societal stigma was attached to the infected and this led to discrimination as well as violence against patients. Similar to the current pandemic, there was a lot of blame game between governments and various international agencies.
The HIV AIDS pandemic also exposed the socio-economic inequalities in society. It showed that a pandemic always had a disproportionate impact on the weaker and vulnerable sections and minorities. Since there was no treatment or vaccine available against HIV, the core prevention strategy was based on promoting healthy social and behavioural changes. This strategy was primarily targeted at vulnerable groups such as sex workers, gay men, drug addicts, truck drivers, migrant workers, etc.
The strategy helped in raising awareness among the vulnerable groups to stay away from risky behaviour. It helped in promoting safe sex practices and in bringing down the use of intravenous drugs. Awareness campaigns also helped in tackling the stigma attached to the disease.
As COVID-19 primarily spreads through mucous droplets secreted through mouth, nose and eyes, it is very Important to maintain personal hygiene.
Awareness campaigns can also help in promoting use of masks. Instead of using coercion and making it mandatory to practice social distancing and wearing masks, it is better to promote this as a voluntary practice. This can be done effectively through strategies aimed at changing behaviour. Political leaders, community leaders and social organisations can play a key role because they themselves need to adopt these social vaccine measures and lead from the front. Such social vaccine measures can help in slowing down or mitigating the spread of the pandemic.