On a May afternoon in the Berlin suburb of Potsdam, I passed a small demonstration protesting the German government’s anti-coronavirus measures. The far-left and far-right have made weird bedfellows at these things, and sprinkled among them was a collection of anti-vaccine protesters. At first, this seemed surprising: Germans generally have high levels of trust in their government and in public health advice. The debate isn’t hugely politicized, the way it is in the United States: You enter a shop, you wear a mask.
But there is also a small and vocal anti-vaccination contingent, which until now had focused its efforts on countering the German government’s decision last year to mandate measles vaccines for schoolchildren. Now, like anti-vaccination movements around the world, it’s become louder and more emboldened. The pandemic and its terrors are fertile soil for anti-vaxxers. As Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project, recently told The Washington Post: “With such a bad pandemic, there were people that said it would make anti-vaxxers wake up and see that vaccines are important … But it’s actually done the opposite.”
You may be familiar with the screechiest of these voices. Kanye West, who perhaps should not be consulted for medical advice, has decided that a potential coronavirus vaccine is “the mark of the beast” that will prevent recipients from accessing “the gates of heaven.” Novak Djokovic, the world’s top-seeded male tennis player but again, not actually a medical professional, has also said he doesn’t believe in vaccines and might not get one for coronavirus (he reportedly tested positive for the virus in June, after hosting a tennis tournament that infected various players).
In the swamps of Facebook, coronavirus vaccine lies grow and proliferate. The main one, endorsed by almost 200,000 people and steeped in a vicious brew of racism and anti-Semitism, involves a plot by Bill Gates to use a possible vaccine to microchip the human population. (To what end? To locate people when they’re lost?)
It may seem that the Kanyes and conspiracy theorists are floating off in their own reality, untethered to the rest of us, but unfortunately it’s not true. Almost half of Americans say they won’t accept a possible coronavirus vaccine, and – even more alarming – a Yahoo News/YouGov poll found nearly half of Republicans believe the Gates conspiracy theory. Another survey led by the University of Erfurt reports that about two-thirds of Germans say they would take the vaccine, but that’s down from the 79 per cent who said they would get the vaccine in April.
We don’t have much reason to be smug in Canada, either: Although nearly 70 per cent of respondents told the Association for Canadian Studies that they would be willing to be vaccinated, there’s a small but significant group that believes in COVID-19 conspiracy theories, including around 10 per cent who believe the Gates falsehoods, according to research published in Policy Options by academics Dominik Stecula, Mark Pickup and Clifton van der Linden. They write: “These conspiracies might deter believers from becoming vaccinated if/when a safe COVID-19 vaccine is developed. This may prevent vaccine coverage from reaching the level necessary to protect the larger population.”
The medical and scientific communities know there is a problem around vaccine hesitancy, which is why the World Health Organization last year labelled it as one of the top health threats facing the world. They know the period before a vaccine is developed – and, crucially, if one is developed – is vital in laying the groundwork for trust and acceptance. Or, to use a slightly debased military analogy, in the attempt to win hearts and minds.
More than 145 vaccines are in preclinical trials, with 21 in various stages of advanced trial. Normal vaccine development for a new virus can take anywhere between 10 and 15 years, according to Johns Hopkins University. These, obviously, are not normal times, and the push is on to have a vaccine ready in 2021.
But how to convince people that a vaccine will be beneficial, and not harmful? How to persuade people who are already reluctant to get flu shots that the way back to normal follows the path of an unfamiliar drug? As a new strategy document states, somewhat ominously: “ ‘If we build it, they will come’ is a naive presupposition about humans and vaccines.”
That report, The Public’s Role in COVID-19 Vaccination, by Johns Hopkins and Texas State University, lists the various ways that hearts and minds must be wooed if a vaccine is to have widespread uptake (it’s aimed at a U.S. audience, but its recommendations will resonate across borders). First it notes that, despite the current tide of misinformation, not everyone who is vaccine-hesitant is a conspiracy theorist. People in racialized communities in the U.S. might be leery of government health programs based on the fact that their communities have historically been subjected to lethal experimentation.
Not surprisingly, one of the main recommendations is around transparency. Health care officials need to communicate the risks and benefits of a potential vaccine. People must be shown that the vaccine will be distributed without preferential treatment and administered in locations that are safe and convenient. The process must be seen as apolitical, contain public oversight and grassroots organizations should be involved at the beginning – that is, now – to ensure that messaging is tailored to the people they know best.
Finally, the nature of those messages is crucial. Vaccine advocates have long known that a compelling story trumps any number of statistics. As Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a U.S. Senate committee, “We need to engage the community by boots on the ground … There needs to be engagement of people who the community trusts, particularly individuals who are noted sports figures or whomever.” In other words, an equally celebrated anti-Kanye needs to step up. Maybe his wife is available?
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