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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Explained: Fresh Covid-19 vaccine incentives on offer around the world

Hong Kong’s incentives are the flashiest: a Tesla, an apartment in the world's most-expensive housing market, gold bars, a diamond Rolex, or a $100,000 shopping spree. In Russia, Putin is giving away snowmobiles.

Written by Rounak Bagchi , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: August 3, 2021 11:51:42 am
A medical worker administers a shot of Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine at a vaccination center in Gostinny Dvor, a huge exhibition place in Moscow, Russia. (Photo: AP)

In Hong Kong, a Covid-19 vaccine might win you a Tesla. In France and Athens, it is your ticket to a bar or restaurant. In Prague, you get an iPhone if you get a shot. However, there are also places where a jab is the only way for you to keep a job.

As governments across the world push to get everyday life back to normal, the carrot-and-stick approach to inoculations is shifting more to the latter.

From cash payments to phone data, free football stadium tours to free grilled meat, officials have offered up a range of carrots to entice people to get shots. We have also seen people winning $1.4 million dollar apartments, gold bars and diamond Rolex in Hong Kong as part of a vaccine lottery programme.

However, with new coronavirus cases on the rise among the unvaccinated, elected officials are starting to fine-tune the idea. As the Delta variant rages across the world, threatening to spark another round of lockdowns with countries like Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, France, US and UAE among others noticing a significant rise in cases, some leaders are bringing out the sticks.

Incentives given around the world to ramp up vaccination

When the Covid vaccination rollout started, the only prize that one would get was a sticker for your Instagram posts. Now, you can even get a snowmobile if you are lucky. Hong Kong’s incentives are the flashiest though: a Tesla, an apartment in the world’s most-expensive housing market, gold bars, a diamond Rolex, or a $100,000 shopping spree. In Russia, Putin is giving away snowmobiles.

In the United States, West Virginians can score lifetime hunting licenses and custom rifles, while in Alabama, people who are vaccinated are offered a chance to drive on a speedway track. US President Joe Biden has called for states to offer $100 to the newly vaccinated in an effort to address flagging jab rates. As such, New York City has decided to pay the amount to anyone who goes to a city-run vaccination site for their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, Mayor Bill de Blasio has said. Earlier, New York had come up with a ‘Vax and Scratch’ program where people were given lottery tickets, which are otherwise sold for $20, free of cost.

Similarly, in Ohio, if you’re between 12 and 17 and have received one shot of a Covid-19 vaccine, you can enter a contest and get a one-in-five chance of winning a four-year full-ride scholarship, including tuition, room-and-board and books to any Ohio state college or university. Those 18 years and older have a chance to win prizes worth $1 million.

Other states in the US including Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota and Delaware have launched similar incentive schemes that include either cash incentives, prize money or other rewards such as free access to state parks.

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Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić has also taken the cash route to entice people to get their shots. In Israel, you get a ‘Green Pass’ once you’re vaccinated which is basically your ticket to gyms, hotels and restaurants.

Closer home, a Chennai-based foundation is providing lucky draws with prizes such as gold coins, washing machines, blenders and bikes to those who take the vaccines. The Sheohar district administration in Bihar is reported to be adopting this model to overcome vaccine hesitancy. News reports said the goldsmith community in Rajkot, Gujarat, had provided freebies to encourage more people for vaccination in April. In Arunachal, a village has been offering free rice to those who turn up for the inoculation drive.

A proof of vaccination sign is posted at a bar in San Francisco on Thursday, July 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Haven Daley)

Bringing out the sticks when the carrots don’t work

Incentives have been tried. However, when the vaccination drive hits a wall as new Covid-19 cases continue to rise thanks to various rapidly spreading mutations of the novel coronavirus, governments across the world have started bringing out the sticks.

Last week, France’s parliament passed a law that requires a “health pass” showing proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test in order to enter restaurants, bars and for travel on long-distance trains and planes, starting in August. “We will extend the health pass as much as possible to push as many of you as possible to go get vaccinated,” French President Emmanel Macron explained. He also said that vaccination would be required for health workers from September 15 and hinted at the possibility of making the shot mandatory for everyone if the epidemic worsened.

Greece, facing a spike in infections that is threatening the revival of its crucial tourism industry, went a step further than France in mid-July, barring the unvaccinated from indoor restaurants, bars, cafes and movie theaters. Workers in homes for the elderly have until August 16 to get vaccinated, or face suspension. Shots will be compulsory for health care workers as of September 1.

Italy, which mandated vaccines for healthcare and pharmacy workers in April, announced last Thursday (July 22) that it too would impose similar restrictions on indoor venues for residents without proof of immunity. “The message that as a government we want to give is, get vaccinated! Get vaccinated! Get vaccinated!” the country’s health minister said.

Across the European Union, about 42 per cent of the population are fully vaccinated. Far higher levels will be necessary to erase concerns about the virus into the colder months of the European winter.

In New York, employees of the city’s public hospital system would have to show proof of vaccination or submit a weekly test until they got their shot. A growing number of private and public employers — including ones in California and New York City — are telling workers that they must get vaccinated or face mandatory testing. California, too, has announced a similar testing mandate for any state employee who can’t provide proof of vaccination.

United Airlines is among companies requiring proof of vaccination from new hires. The Broadway show “Hamilton” in May announced that all cast and crew must be immunized. At least 600 public and private colleges in the United States are requiring proof from their staff and students, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Do these actually push up vaccination figures?

Evidence for a conclusive result isn’t enough to answer whether incentives or disincentives work better when it comes to ramping up a country’s inoculation drive.

While in Hong Kong, vaccinations saw a two-fold rise since the rollout of a host of private sector incentives, a recent study of Ohio’s vaccine lottery found no evidence that it had increased vaccination take-up though it did suggest rates had slowed less in Ohio than in the US overall.

Experts mostly agree that incentives are worth trying. “Nudges are what change people’s behaviour,” Noel Brewer, a professor specializing in vaccine uptake research at the University of North Carolina, had told Bloomberg.

However, the effect of France’s new mandate was dramatic: a record 926,000 people made an appointment on Monday via medical booking site DoctoLib. As of Thursday, 2.6 million people had booked a vaccine following the President’s speech, 62 per cent of whom were younger than 35.

Similarly, 68 per cent of Italians would be in favour of allowing only fully vaccinated people to go to restaurants, hotels, cinemas, trains and planes, according to a Euromedia Research poll published in La Stampa newspaper on Thursday. About the same share would back the removal of medical staff who aren’t fully vaccinated by mid-September.

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The Incentives vs Disincentives debate

The idea of compulsory vaccines or giving out incentives to encourage people to get their shots remain controversial.

With governments considering various ways of addressing varying levels of vaccine confidence and hesitancy around the world, Julian Savulescu, a professor at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford University, wrote in an article in the BMJ British Medical Journal that ‘anti-vaxxers’ may never be convinced to change their stance, but incentivising vaccination may persuade others who might not have done so to get the jab.

However, other experts cautioned strongly against offering financial incentives. “Paying people to get vaccinated would set a very dangerous precedent,” said Keith Neal, an emeritus professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Nottingham University.

When it comes to routine childhood vaccines — such as those against contagious diseases like measles — the World Health Organization says that making them mandatory is one of the best ways to boost coverage rates. But policies that incentivise or make vaccinations compulsory for adults are rare and are often met with resistance like in the case of France where protesters clashed with police when President Macron ruled that people need to get vaccinated to be able to go to bars, restaurants or undertake long-distance travel.

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