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Sweetening The Deal: A Global Tour Of Vaccine Incentives

Can the Benjamins convince the vax skeptics?
Can the Benjamins convince the vax skeptics?
Hannah Steinkopf-Frank

Million-dollar jackpots, free food and … a cow? Governments around the world are getting creative to encourage COVID vaccination, particularly among the young and healthy, who have some of the highest rates of vaccine hesitancy.

Not everyone, of course, can be convinced. Die-hard antivaxers who fear medical side effects (that have no scientific grounding) may never come around. But the thinking is that with the right incentive, others might overcome their reluctance and help move us closer, as a global population, toward herd immunity.

Programs of this type are, it's fair to say, a brazen appeal to personal gain. But hey, if cold hard cash is what it takes for people to do their part, why not? Time will tell, but perhaps these kinds of incentives could even end up having broader implications for other public health campaigns:

Seeing green: Not exactly the hippest of U.S. states, Ohio has nevertheless become quite the trendsetter of late thanks to its Vax-a-Million campaign. The program is essentially a lottery system that rewards lucky vaccine recipients with weekly jackpots of ($1 million) or, in the case of young residents, a generous scholarship to one of the state's public universities.

• Vaccination numbers are up as a result: The Ohio Lottery and the Ohio Department of Health report that campaign has helped increase vaccination by around 30%. The winners of the first jackpot and scholarship prizes have already been selected, the Ohio-based Statehouse News Bureau reports. "I still can't believe it," said 22-year-old Abbigail Bugenske, who is suddenly a million dollars richer.

• Other states (including Kentucky, Maryland and Oregon) have introduced similar programs, each with its own variation. West Virginia is now offering every vaccinated citizen aged 16-35 a $100 savings bond

• Cash incentives aren't limited to the United States. In Serbia, which has already vaccinated over 30% of its approximately 7 million citizens but saw the pace of new vaccine sign-ups slow, decided to offer 3,000 dinars ($30) to anyone getting the shot in May. The extra dose of dinars is not an insignificant amount in a country where the average monthly income is about $600.

• Russia too began offering $14 coupons to Moscow couples over 60 getting the shot.

• In Hong Kong, where the cost of housing is the highest in the world, a lottery was started — with the top prize being a HK$ 10.8 million ($1.4 million) estate.

Debt-free school: Many colleges and universities are requiring vaccination as a condition to return to campus. But some higher education institutions are taking things further still with scholarship incentives and even money raffles.

• Nine vaccinated students at the University of Lethbridge in Calgary, Canada won't have to pay fall tuition or fees, and at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, one lucky student will get a free year of schooling. Australia is also considering offering tuition incentives to target young people, as well as giving out free beer!

All fun and games: In a reopening world, the strategy behind many vaccine promotions is to remind people of the activities they'll once again have access to provided, of course, that they're inoculated.

• In the United Arab Emirates, the Dubai Sports Council is offering free training sessions to the vaccinated. And in Israel, people must now obtain a so-called "green pass' to access gyms, restaurants and cultural venues.

• Back in the United States, the National Football League is offering 50 tickets for the 2022 Superbowl LVI to fans sharing why they got vaccinated. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is offering free two-day access to state parks. And in Alabama, residents who vaccinated at a drive-up clinic at the Talladega Superspeedway got to take laps around the track. Private businesses that rely on vaccination are also joining: United Airlines is awarding five (vaccinated) frequent flier members free travel worldwide for a year.

• Some places have also turned vaccination sites into swinging hotspots. In Toronto, Canada, DJs put on a show for people waiting in line, and in Tel Aviv, local businesses have provided free meals at pop-up vaccination centers. Meanwhile, in Turkey, door-to-door "vaccination persuasion" teams have been crucial in providing easy dose access.

DJ Troy playing at a COVID vaccination center in Toronto on May 2 — Black Creek CHC via Twitter

• And in Shanghai, the city enlisted popular girl band SNH48 to help promote vaccinations, with stamping vaccine passports for fans in vaccination centers.

Tasty benefits: One of the first to sweeten the deal, so to speak, was the Krispy Kreme restaurant chain, which began offering one free donut a day for a year for those with a vaccination card. Others in the food and beverage industry have followed suit. A New York brewery offering free beer led to more than 100 vaccinations a single afternoon. And in Miami, thirsty beachgoers were more than happy to participate in a "Shots for Shots' promotion.

• In Moscow, which suffered from a potential oversupply of doses, free ice cream was given in exchange for the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine, a rather delectable plan that might have been more successful in a warmer climate.

Free ice-cream in Moscow — Photo: Bloomberg screenshot

• To meet its plan of immunizing 40% of its population by mid-2021, China is encouraging businesses around the country to offer discounts and freebies like cartons of eggs, chicken wings and vouchers for supermarkets. Like in Russia, they are attempting to overcome concerns about their domestically-designed vaccine. Japan is also considering similar shopping vouchers as well as discounted taxis to vaccination sites.

• And finally ... holy cow! Officials in the Mae Chaem district of Thailand's Chiang Mai province are pushing vaccination through auctioning a live calf. A winner will be chosen each week for 24 weeks, with district chief Boonlue Thammanurak saying the goal is to help residents feel more "engaged" and "relaxed" despite the struggles of the pandemic. Thammanurak says that in a matter of days, vaccination numbers have jumped from hundreds to thousands.

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