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How to cope when your friends are unvaccinated

By October 16, 2021No Comments

With 10% of the population unvaccinated, our collective immunity against Covid-19  is threatened. Here Gillian Roddie writes about compassionately facing our unvaccinated friends, the importance of a fully vaccinated society and how protecting yourself and loved ones is not selfish…

For a small nation we have a habit of punching well above our weight in terms of accomplishments; if you’re not old enough to remember Italia ‘90 I implore you to ask someone who is, and watch as their eyes glaze over in dreamy nostalgia.


We’ve won the Eurovision a record seven times, and have no choice but to take responsibility for releasing Johnny Logan into the world. And, in 2021 we became the leaders in Covid-19 vaccine responses – as the Financial Times declared on August 11th we went from “pandemic hotspot to vaccine poster child” in a few months. With just under 75% of our whole population now fully vaccinated, we sit 13th in the world rankings for vaccination rates, and can boast 90% vaccine uptake in our adult population. 

Impressive numbers, and we’d be forgiven for letting our brains take the short-cut to assuming that 90% is practically everyone, right? But as we were reminded this week, with rising Covid-19 case numbers threatening the final lifting of restrictions on October 22nd, that unvaccinated population still represents 300,000 people. That’s only just less than the population of the urban areas of Cork and Limerick combined. And it’s also these unvaccinated people who are placing disproportionate pressure on our already-stretched health service, with those 10% accounting for 50% of all Covid hospital admissions. 

If 1 in 10 adults remains unvaccinated, there’s a very good chance you know someone who is one of them. You may be friends with one of them. And if you are, there’s an even better chance that your friendship has suffered as a result. A US-based survey found that 1 in 7 Americans had ended a friendship over Covid-19 vaccination status. It’s unclear whether Jen Aniston was one of those polled, but in August she told InStyle magazine that she’d “lost a few people in [her] weekly routine who have refused or did not disclose [whether they’d been vaccinated]”. 

Bringing it home

Closer to home, a friend told me of her own experiences with an unvaccinated pal: “One of my best friends hasn’t got it, and didn’t tell me, and was in my house, and I’m finding it really hard to get beyond it”. Thanks to our high vaccination uptake, many of us have been spared the devastation of losing a loved one to coronavirus, and so this intangible feeling of just not being okay with an unvaccinated friend, without any concrete reasons to point at to justify our discomfort, is understandable. We might even look at the 1 in 7 in the US survey and feel they’re being a little melodramatic.

But in the US, as of September, Covid-19 had surpassed the 1918 flu to become the deadliest pandemic history. The death toll currently stands at 720,000, with only 57% of its 329 million population fully vaccinated. While infection rates are currently dropping, there is sure to be yet another wave as winter sets in and vaccinated and unvaccinated alike start to migrate indoors to warm, poorly ventilated spaces.

We are less likely to see such a wave in Ireland but it’s not impossible, and as the news this week is proving, the significant population of unvaccinated people is still large enough to pose a public health risk. As successful as our vaccination program has been, the high numbers of unvaccinated individuals combined with the high rates of transmission through the vaccination campaign, meant that we only stalled, not eliminated, Covid-19 circulating in the country.

Not just an individual choice

For a while there it seemed as though vaccination was going to become something of a moot point, we were all at it, and sure what was there to worry about? If there’s one thing the coronavirus has shown us it’s that it likes to remind us it exists, and unvaccinated people are unfortunately most likely to facilitate its resurgence. So no matter how much we try and turn it over, frame and reframe it, there’s one undeniable truth here: others’ choices not to vaccinate is one that doesn’t just affect that individual – it affects those around them too. And the people connected to them.

We have learned, exhaustively, that a pandemic infection is truly a community affair. If one person contracts the virus, it is likely to directly and indirectly affect the people around them. Work and school is missed, routines are interrupted, incomes may be stretched, vulnerable close contacts are put at further risk, childcare is interrupted, and both mental and physical health comes under threat. But since earlier this year, there has been a very simple way to minimise these overall risks: vaccination.

To be clear, there is absolutely no valid scientific reason for anyone eligible for a vaccine not to receive one. Their safety is no longer up for debate. Someone’s choice not to vaccinate is rarely rooted in logic, reason or fact. Harsh, but quite true, and I think most of us realise that. Some argue that it’s important to allow autonomous choice, that it’s down to each individual to decide what’s best for them.

But vaccines are unique in that they carry health benefits not only for the recipient, but indirectly protect those around them. They have a long term protective element too – as we’ve seen from the emergence of the Kent and then Delta variants from the original Wuhan strain of Covid-19, large populations of unvaccinated people also provide reservoirs for the virus to mutate, and the constant threat of a more deadly, more virulent, or vaccine resistant strain. Vaccination is an act of solidarity and compassion in the same way that not vaccinating is a threat and a risk.

“Not who you thought they were”

So when a friend declines the option to vaccinate, this person who we’ve shared laughs and secrets with, told our innermost fears to, navigated life’s ups and downs alongside, it can feel as though they are rejecting your friendship itself in refusing a simple act that would protect a future of memories. It is confusing to discover that the person you’ve held so dear, who you thought shared the same values as you, is somehow not the person you thought they were. 

And so, what to do? The good news – or less good if you were hoping for some guiding light here – is that you decide what happens with the friendship. Finding out their “why” is the best place to begin; is it something you can understand and reconcile, or is their argument too unpalatable for you to handle? Fear is what drove most of us to receive the vaccine in the first instance, but for some people the fear of the vaccine is greater than the fear of the virus. You also get to set boundaries for your own and your loved ones’ health guilt-free; it is not selfish or irrational. But perhaps the friendship can move forward in an alternative form – is maintaining social distancing when you meet acceptable to you both? Would keeping in touch remotely be an option to honour both your needs? Or is an agreement to take a friendship break until you can figure out a way forward something that should be explored? 

Whichever option you choose, empathy from both sides will be necessary to keep the friendship fire alive in the long run. An easy ideology in principle, and extraordinarily difficult in practice. But with another challenging winter ahead, it’s an ideology that we will all have to try to live by.