Since December 2020, municipalities worldwide have been organising the vaccination of their citizens against COVID-19. Not only do they have to ensure that vaccinations run smoothly; they also have to gain people's trust through innovative communication strategies, and reach vulnerable groups such as the elderly and refugees with important information on vaccination.
The virtual dialogue on vaccination strategies and vaccine communication on 22 and 25 March 2021 was attended by eight municipalities and two local government associations from Germany, Israel, Colombia, Serbia and Togo. It was one of a series of events on COVID-19 held by Connective Cities – the international community of practice for sustainable urban development. Since the summer of 2020, this series of online events has been giving municipalities around the world an opportunity to share their experiences, advise each other on how to control the COVID-19 pandemic, and jointly identify pandemic management solutions.
Detlef Cwojdzinski, Project Manager for the vaccination centres in Berlin, pointed out to participants the importance of internal communication for keeping the vaccination centres running smoothly. He explained that this was a key factor in ensuring that the many actors involved – including the aid organisations that run the centres, the staff of roughly 3,000, the ministry of health, the doctors, the security personnel and the military – work together effectively and transparently. This enables them to vaccinate as many people as possible. Furthermore, in their PR work the organisations running the vaccination centres pursue a policy of open communication with the public that creates trust. This covers the entire vaccination process – from appointment management, to registration at the vaccination centre, to the informed consent discussions with the doctors. These discussions can also be held in a foreign language or in sign language. Presentation "Wir helfen Berlin" [pdf, in German]
As explained by Dr Jasmina Tanasic, Programme Director for Social Development at the Standing Conference of Towns and Municipalities of Serbia, citizens in Serbia are being vaccinated at 950 centres and by mobile teams in student halls of residence, firms and villages. Serbia's vaccination strategy includes vertical and horizontal coordination. Vertical coordination by the Ministry of Health goes right down to the municipalities. Horizontal coordination works particularly well thanks to operational teams of experts that include all relevant local stakeholders. Municipalities should provide good support to volunteers, to prevent them from becoming overworked and fatigued. For communicating with citizens, municipal call centres have proved effective in Serbia.
In Krefeld the municipality has commissioned the German Red Cross to implement its testing and vaccination strategy. Both see a huge need to network the many actors involved in the vaccination campaign and to coordinate their inputs. To achieve this, a round table would (amongst other things) help to clearly communicate the tasks and competences of the various stakeholders. The Municipality of Krefeld's communication strategy focuses on providing information on vaccine safety, helping citizens to understand the order of priority for vaccination, and encouraging them to be patient. It uses various channels of communication such as social media, and addresses vulnerable sections of the population separately. More about this good practice
A large proportion of citizens in the Serbian municipality of Stari Grad, the historic centre of Belgrade, are over 65 years old and have therefore been prioritised for vaccination. To reach these people, who usually do no themselves have access to the government online portal for booking vaccination appointments, the municipality has set up a call centre. Its staff contact citizens and arrange appointments for them. There is also a hotline that citizens can ring. At the same time a team of volunteers contact people directly, and offer to drive those who need help to the vaccination centre, accompany them during the vaccination process and help them to fill in forms, for instance. Presentation: Service centre for communication with citizens [pdf]
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Migrants make up a high percentage of the population of Stuttgart. Citizens come from 180 countries and speak a total of 120 languages. Reaching them through the vaccine communication strategy is an important goal of Stuttgart's vaccination campaign. The municipality has for instance published videos and flyers in various languages, and uses social media channels. Through its external communication the municipality also aims to appeal for patience, strengthen solidarity in city society and help protect particularly vulnerable groups. Many people with a migrant background, or with disabilities, as well as older people, often have no access to the online portal for booking vaccination appointments. In Stuttgart many volunteers, including some from migrant organisations, are supporting those who need help with booking appointments and accompanying them to the vaccination centre. A round table with all the key stakeholders involved in the vaccination campaign ensures transparency as well as a clear allocation of competences and tasks. More about this good practice
The Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona succeeded in vaccinating all citizens over 65 years of age within one month. Factors that helped make the vaccination campaign a success included the fact that the Israeli government quickly made sufficient vaccines available. Secondly, the municipality was able to use established structures and draw on lessons learned in disaster risk management. Furthermore, communication was target-group-specific: Young people were invited to a long night of vaccination with crisps and pizza. Older people were invited to a reading, followed by vaccination. Volunteers rang up all senior citizens. A comprehensive public information campaign, which had already been launched before the vaccinations began, also succeeded in significantly reducing citizens' reservations concerning vaccination. Presentation: Vaccination Strategy of Kiryat Shmona [pdf]
One key element of the Connective Cities dialogues is peer-to-peer consulting (also known as intervision). Here, municipal actors present current challenges in a group and participants jointly seek appropriate problem-solving strategies. The method enables them to draw on the lessons they have learned as municipal practitioners.
Through its vaccination campaign, the Colombian capital Bogotá intends to reach citizens more effectively in order to dispel incorrect information about the vaccines and create trust in the vaccination process. In various respects the process is not running optimally: Only little vaccine is available, and the allocation of vaccination appointments is hitting problems at various points. One proposed solution includes establishing a round table at which all stakeholders responsible for the campaign would meet up, discuss things and reach joint decisions. Communication should also target local authorities in particular, so it is argued, because citizens usually place great trust in them. Indigenous groups should be addressed in their own languages, and a public information campaign should call for patience and solidarity, as well as respect for those currently prioritised for vaccination.
While other municipalities face vaccine sceptics and anti-vaxxers, the Municipality of Stuttgart currently sees a growing impatience among citizens to finally get a vaccination appointment. Here it is important to communicate transparently the time frame for vaccinating the various sections of the population in accordance with the priorities set by politicians. However, this is being made more difficult by inadequate vaccine deliveries and the halting of vaccination with the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The city's communication activities must reach all the important target groups, including vulnerable group such as refugees, who often do not speak German very well. This is why many channels of communication need to be used, and why translation apps can be of great value at the vaccination centres. Because volunteers play a central role in Stuttgart's vaccination strategy, it is important to show appreciation of their services for instance by providing them with free training. It is also important to explicitly recruit more volunteers.
Once those citizens who are willing to be vaccinated have received their jabs, the city's communication strategy will need to change. It will need to persuade vaccine sceptics of the benefits of vaccination as well as its safety. And it will also need to continue reaching out particularly to those sections of the population that are marginalised and difficult to reach.
Tips for municipalities on vaccine communication