How Politics Poisoned Public Trust In The Covid-19 Vaccine

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Without mass vaccination, things are unlikely to go back to normal—or any semblance of normal—and, medically-speaking, the science supporting the Covid-19 vaccines is sound. Despite warnings in 2020 that a vaccine would be a long way off, the global scientific community managed to achieve in a matter of months what would have usually taken years. A US-based surgeon, Dr Benjamin Stong, referred to the results from the trials of the Pfizer vaccine as “nothing short of a modern-day miracle”. 

“The concerns [of anti-vaxxers] are nonsense, from a medical perspective,” Dr Stong added.

But vaccine hesitancy is a complex and contentious topic that is more than just about the validity of the medical evidence behind it.

While it is easy to dismiss those who are reluctant to get vaccinated as ignorant and harmful to society, we should first try to unpack where this sentiment comes from.

According to the latest ONS data, around 7% of Britons express vaccine hesitancy—no small figure, considering there are over 66 million people in Great Britain.

I saw a similar result in a survey I conducted myself—out of 85 respondents, 8% reported that they would be extremely unlikely to accept an offer of a Covid-19 vaccination.

Trust in politicians

A major factor in recent years has been the growing distrust in politics and political figures, in democracies all over the world. Michael Gove, in an attempt to rally the populist vote in 2017, claimed that the public has “had enough of experts”. When one of the key political figures makes sweeping statements like this, how can we possibly expect the public to trust the medical advice from the very same experts three years down the line?

The Dominic Cummings fiasco didn’t help matters either—him travelling 420 km to Barnard Castle as the rest of the country was told to stay at home was a display of flagrant hypocrisy. The failure of Boris Johnson to immediately sack Cummings following the exposé further undermined the public’s trust in the government’s ability to handle the pandemic, leading researchers to refer to this as the ‘Cummings effect’. Findings of one Lancet study show that confidence in government and compliance with lockdown fell sharply after the 22nd May, when the Barnard Castle story broke, and have never fully recovered since.

And need I remind you of the Track and Trace fiasco, when our government spent £12 billion for what was essentially an Excel spreadsheet? It’s not exactly a great track record, is it.

This is by no means confined to the UK; the legacy of Trump’s presidency, which consisted of lies and Tweets which were increasingly hard to tell apart from satire, will be felt by generations to come. Even Dr Stong admitted that he would have been more reluctant to get vaccinated if Trump had been re-elected for another term.

In my opinion, taking into account the state of politics today, it’s a big ask to expect the public to unconditionally trust these same politicians on matters of public health. Sure, Boris Johnson may pose for a couple of excessively jingoist post-AstraZeneca-vaccine photos in an attempt to relate to “the people”, but that won’t be enough to seal the rift that has been forming for decades between those in power and those who are not.

The pandemic has made the poor poorer and the rich richer. Look at Amazon—a company that has disproportionately profited from our increased online shopping during the pandemic. Jeff Bezos is the richest man alive, while warehouse workers are allegedly forced to urinate in bottles due to a lack of sufficient bathroom breaks.

According to Christopher May, a Professor of Political Economy at Lancaster University, this can be traced back to the mid-twentieth century: “The blip is really 1945 to 1970… what we’ve seen post-Thatcher and Regan is this distrust of authority, distrust of state institutions and an introduction of an ability to make one’s own mind up on an individual basis.

Dominic Cummings, in going to Barnard Castle, made his own decision—many anti-vaxxers would argue that there’s a direct parallel.”

Structural inequalities

The inequalities at play aren’t just socio-economic, they are also racial. The Tuskegee syphilis experiments, which didn’t end until 1972, could largely explain why levels of vaccine hesitancy are, on average, much higher among the Black ethnic minority groups than in the general population. If your experience of medical intervention is that of intentional harm, why would you readily consent to the same perpetrators injecting you with something that you’re not even sure you need?

This view was echoed by Luke Moffat, a Sociology researcher at Lancaster University: “Almost, if not every single time, a large scale policy or government endeavour is taken on the negative effects will always find their way to disadvantaged groups—ethnic minorities, immigrants—it always lands on the same people and there’s no reason to suspect this [pandemic] will be any different.”

Social media

However, by far the most significant change in recent years has been the growing use of social media. The times we are living through aren’t unprecedented, there’s plenty of historical precedent, we just all have access to Twitter now. Every thought, every opinion and every piece of unverified information can and is being shared with the click of a button. 

“The smallpox outbreak in the 40s was the first mass vaccination effort that the US had to undertake. In the end 6.5 million people got vaccinated—5 million in the first two weeks. If all those people in New York in the 40s had the same kind of access to social media, you have to ask yourself if the uptake would have been the same,” Dr Moffat told me.

Other complex societal factors, such as how we understand risk and the individualism so strongly ingrained in capitalist structures, have undoubtedly made the phenomenon of vaccine hesitancy worse.

People are bad at understanding risk, generally. “We are more at risk from driving to get the AstraZeneca vaccine than we are from getting the vaccine itself. 

We are more likely, statistically, to have a road accident on the way to get the vaccine than a blood clot,” Professor May told me. 

Moreover, getting the vaccine can often be a selfless act, especially for young people who are deemed to be at a lower risk of complications if they do contract the virus. 

Granted, these are behavioural and structural issues we won’t be able to solve overnight, but they are essential to bear in mind when talking about vaccine hesitancy or public health policy more broadly. I also concede that there are people out there who are wilfully ignorant, but I’m inclined to believe that they are in the minority. 

Dr Moffat summed up our conversation: “The era of pandemics is here and some of the new rules are going to be permanent. It’s no longer about getting rid of the virus. It’s about learning to live with it.

You can believe, or not believe, all you want. But it’s right here, and there’s another one around the corner, so we have to figure something out—there’s no other option.”

Words by Tamara Krivskaya

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