Recently the world woke up to the breaking news that Britain has become the first country in the world to provide the Covid-19 vaccine. Overall, tit has been reported that the UK secured 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine which the German firm has said is 95 per cent effective in preventing Covid-19 and has passed its safety checks. The UK government also has seven million doses of the Moderna vaccine, with a further 100 million doses ordered from Oxford for their vaccine with Astra Zeneca.
Canada, who joined the UK in approving the US/German jab on the 9th December 2020 has ordered more shorts per head of the Pfizer vaccine than any other country.
Whilst this was the case on the 9th December 2020, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) received a petition asking for the universal accessible and affordable Covid-19 vaccines. The petition was delivered virtually by Avaaz, a global online citizen movement, to the WT0. Over 900 000 individuals from around the world signed the petition which asks all governments, WTO members and pharmaceutical companies to ensure access to life saving Covid-19 vaccine, treatment and equipment for everyone in the world.
Originating in December 2019, Wuhan, Covid-19 rapidly spread across China due to the interconnected systems of globalised modernity, where everybody is a place ride away from chains of lethal transmission (Ungar, 2001). In Europe, Italy became the first Western country to be affected by Covid-19, it immediately was involved in an “Infodemic” characterised, by a mix of facts, fears, rumours and speculations.
The lack of information about the virus and its consequences for people’s safety, the uncertainty as to how it might be transmitted, and the dissemination of various types of misinformation about Covid-19 worked together to increase the stream of infodemic globally.
The Corona virus led to medical experts (virologists, epidemiologists, public health scholars and statisticians alike) being instrumental in suggesting policies to counteract the spread of the virus. Given the dangerous and the extent of the contagion, almost no one has questioned the suggestions that these experts advised policy makers to implementation. Quite often the policy makers sought expert advice and justified unpopular measures, for example, restricting people’s freedom of movement by referring to epistemic authority.
When Corona virus patients were placed in intensive care in the different parts of the world health care facilities, many countries immediately were up against an emergency from a health and communication point of view. What was to follow was a rollercoaster of polarised interventions and sentiments, accelerated by constant public disputes between the scientists and politicians, specularised by mainstream media and fuelled by partisan interests. Botswana went into the same overdrive with the politicians not wanting to be outdone with some opposition members of parliament against the State of Emergency declared by HE Mokgweetsi Masisi.
The anxiogenic situation escorted countries to go on lock down in order to stop the spread of the virus and later the World Health Organisation (WHO) characterised Covid-19 as a pandemic. In South Africa the Minister of Security Bheki Cele even introduced the skeet skop en dornoor technique as a form of intervention.
In the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, anti-vaccine sentiments have been on the rise, with a recent seminal study on the development of anti-vaccine views in social media. With the current scientific consensus being overwhelming agreement over the safety and efficacy vaccines, many scientists lose their grasp on the fears, concerns and arguments that the opposition may hold.
This commentary focuses on the spread of Covid-19 misinformation, highlighting the dynamics that have impacted on its pandemic communication. The unprecedented outbreak of the Corona virus affected global health crisis, progressive erosion of trust in public institutions regarding matters of health and science. In this context, the politicization of health issues and growing use of social media to confront the coronavirus “infodemic”.
In the context of the corona virus pandemic, most leaders began appealing to medical experts and to their epistemic authority to justify the implementation of unpopular measures such as enforced quarantine, considered the most suitable to slow down the spread of Covid-19 (Johnson NF et al, 2020). This step has been motivated by, at least two elements. On the one hand, political authorities perceived that ordinary actions were ineffective and had to make use of medical experts, often essentially delegating strategies and decisions to experts. In the case of Botswana, a covid-19 task force was set which was initially led by medical expert.
On the other hand, it was argued by Johnson et al (2020) that if leaders’ resort to the epistemic authority of experts, they are prima facie relieved of responsibility for the choices made, especially if they are unwelcome by opinion, are ineffective, or have unforeseen negative side effects. Other scholars also argued that in reality, this dynamic that leads experts to assume a central role in politics can as we saw in the case of Botswana create problems in itself, since the strategies proposed by experts are often far from neutral with respect to the values that a pluralistic society considers relevant – case in point in the context of Botswana is the creative industry’s concerns that came as a result of the early management of the epidemic.
The commentary also explores why anti-vaccine sentiments are on the rise, and how members of the scientific and medical community require a more structured approach to communicating key arguments. This is particularly important if vaccination rates and herd immunity are to be sustained. No longer is it sufficient to win arguments based on a factual and scientific basis, but rather scientists and medical practitioners have to focus on conveying confidence and reassurance on both information and emotional level to those with doubts and fears submitted (Hussain et al, 2018, Benecke et al 2019)
The history of medicine tells us that vaccinations entered modern medical practice in the 1800. With the smallpox vaccine developed by Edward Jenner. The literature from the history of medicine clearly indicates that early vaccinations were rudimentary, as in the case of smallpox. As mandatory vaccinations of infants became codified into law with the Vaccination Act of 1853 and later 1867. (Weber, 2010) states that some people shelved resistance to what was perceived as interference into the medical decision’s parents could make for children.
While many believe that the anti-vaccine (anti-vax) movement is novel and direct result of the increase of immunization available, anti-vaccination are not a novel concept, and have actually been present as long as medical vaccine themselves as observed by Hussain et al (2018) and Weber et al (2010). The anti-vaccine proponents are often called anti-vaxxers, are often caricatured in the media as un-educated, un-sophisticated lay people from lower socio-economic strata. They are heterogeneous group, some want to avoid all vaccination, while others would want to avoid certain specific vaccinations or reduce or delay the overall number of vaccinations. The general attitudes of the scientific literature towards anti-vaxxers may appear hostile and encourage censorship.
Anti-vaccine arguments are often grounded in anecdotal evidence which runs the danger of leading to post hoc ergo propter hoc (literally translated “After this, therefore because of this).
It is important to note that vaccine hesitancy is not a new thing and not confined to the first world only. Even in lower to middle income countries this phenomenon has been on going. For instance, if at all I am not mistaken the Bazezuru community in Southern Africa practice it too.
Vaccine hesitancy with respect to the Corona virus vaccine was recently presented in South Africa by the Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng. In his interview with ENCA, Justice Mogoeng stated that, there is no medication without side effects and that people should be allowed to speak freely about the vaccine and express freely their sentiments and not be beaten to silence. It is important to note that despite gaining significant traction anti-vaccine sentiments are still in the minority and the literature show that about 80% of the world population agree that vaccines are safe.
Often, anti-vaccine viewpoints and arguments are more compelling and almost as widespread in social media relative to their pro-vaccine counterparts which could be contributing to the movement rapid growth of the Anti-vaxx.
Safety concerns about vaccines have been around as long as there have been vaccines and many of these issues were valid and have led to corrective actions. There are currently assertions all over that vaccines contain harmful ingredients. There is also profound sense of medical mistrust, along with concerns that repeated immunization protocols may be excessive, redundant or profit-making enterprise rather than preventive medicine.
Anti-vax movement has led to the rejection of vaccines and the popularity of treatment to those recommended by mainstream medicine. However, this phenomenon of refusal of mainstream medicine remain rather limited and it is not shared in the wider society.
Whilst the WTO has received the petition, where it intends to continue discussing to waive certain obligations in the TRIPS agreement (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights) in relation to the prevention, containment or treatment of Covid-19, considerable differences remain between members over this proposal. Coupled with all these are also the issues of vaccine nationalism and Vaccine cold room and the petitions locally.
Where do we go from here, guided by facts and not mere fallacies.
Thabo Lucas Seleke is a Researcher & Scholar, Global Health Policy