With announcement of potential Covid-19 vaccines, our Science and Tech Columnist Sofia considers whether giving anti-vaxxers a platform is dangerous.
We are nearing the Holy Grail. Getting closer to the legendary treasure. We have potential vaccines against Covid-19. Our prayers have finally been answered!
Well, not everyone’s.
Despite being in a prolonged pandemic, there are people who still oppose vaccinations - so-called anti-vaxxers. Whether it is because a vaccine involves injecting a “foreign” substance into their body (paradoxically, many seem to not realise that the disease itself is also foreign, but no matter) or because they have a bigger bone to pick with the pharmaceutical industry as a whole, there is a growing community of anti-vaxxers popping up all over the globe. As it stands, a third of Brits and half of Americans are either completely against, or at least uncertain about, taking a vaccine against Covid-19. Interestingly, a large portion of these people wouldn’t consider themselves to be anti-vaxx; rather, many of them are “vaccine-hesitant”, a group that has grown enormously during the pandemic who are concerned about safety, efficacy, and risks v costs.
The vaccines that have been announced recently are being produced at record speeds, understandably raising the question: how do we know it’s safe? The US vaccine operation is called Operation Warp Speed, which sounds more like science fiction than science and doesn’t exactly scream safe and reliable. The fastest viral vaccine ever produced was the MMR vaccine which took 4 years. Now we have access to a potentially effective vaccine in 9 months. This would raise anyone’s eyebrow. So understandably, a lot of people are taking the stance of “you first” when it comes to taking the vaccine.
This is where we reach a dilemma: we need a vaccine for the pandemic to end, and the quicker we get a vaccine, the quicker the pandemic ends. Simple. Yet the faster we get a vaccine, the more sceptical people become. We are caught in a tragic loop. Speed seems to have become the vice rather than the virtue we all hoped for. To end the pandemic, we need roughly 75% of people vaccinated but, as polls stand, we are barely clutching on to that magic number. This is the real crisis we are facing: having the off switch but not being able to press it.
Many answers people give in response to why they wouldn’t get vaccinated against Covid-19 are regarding safety concerns and unknown long-term side effects due to the speed at which the trials are being carried out. But the scientific community has reinforced time and time again that there is nothing to worry about. Anti-vaxxers tell a slightly different story, sowing the seeds of doubt into the general public; into otherwise bright, capable people. In my own circle of friends at UofG, people have admitted they are sceptical - people who are university educated, and some of whom study STEM subjects. They are not naïve nor stupid, but simply misinformed. In most other circumstances, someone holding a different view would pose no threat to anyone - but here, people’s lives are at stake. Is it even right to let misinformation spread the way it has been? Should we stop giving anti-vaxxers a platform? Well…yes and no. Is it right for people to say what they want? Yes. Is it right to claim truth in unsupported claims? No.
Censorship is not the answer. It wouldn’t be fair to outright block someone’s content, to remove it as if it had never existed. Not only is that morally wrong, it would just add fuel to the fire. It would confirm the views held by many anti-vaxxers: that the government and the pharma companies don’t want us to know “the truth”. Instead, I propose complete transparency - by both parties. Whatever you say, you have to back it up with sound evidence. Whether you are from the scientific community or you believe that Obama is actually a blood-drinking lizard, let’s see some proof.
However, there are nuances. There’s a difference between letting someone upload a video to social media and flagging it for containing falsehoods and enabling active, weighted engagement in the debate. You would never see a debate on mainstream media about whether 2 + 2 = 4, or whether Scotland won the World Cup...sorry. Yet we see lots of interviews and debates with science v the vaccine sceptic. This gives the impression that there is another side; that, actually, 2 + 2 could equal 5, and that this point of view is just as legitimate as 2 + 2 equalling 4. The evidence clearly says that it is not. By the same token, anti-vaxx campaigners should not be invited to public debates or TV shows, as this legitimises their view and offers it as a valid option to agree with. But there is no agree or disagree - there is only evidence and then the lack of it. You can debate election results, how to stack a dishwasher, or whether peanut butter and jam is the ultimate combo - but you can’t debate whether or not vaccines are safe. They are. 2 + 2 = 4.
Like I said, though, there is a difference between this high-profile media coverage and someone choosing to post to their Wordpress blog. We cannot and should never silence people; people are free to express their thoughts however they wish. But if a video, post or article is posted to social media, the site should flag it for containing misinformation in a similar manner it did to Trump’s tweets during the election. The fact this was managed for the election but refrained in other sectors is a dismal failure on behalf of social media sites.
Finally, we have to listen. Not to the full-on anti-vaxxers, because no one has the energy for that right now, but to the vaccine-hesitant. They need to be reassured. They don’t need high up officials patting them on the head before injecting them in the arm. Fears and worries are legitimate. If you haven’t been able to tell from the tone, I am a very strong advocate for vaccines, but I still am curious and would like some questions answered - being told to just hush and take the vaccine is insulting. We need to offer real reassurance, otherwise they will go in the search of some elsewhere: somewhere that reinforces their scepticism. We will drive them away. Transparency, empathy and the objective support of evidence is paramount to getting 75% of the population to recognise that 2 + 2 = 4.