In a recent piece on the “tough choices” ICUs will have to make as Covid cases rise, Jimmy Kimmel suggested that units should prioritise those who have taken the vaccine. “That choice doesn’t seem so tough to me,” he remarked to a laughing audience.
This is just one example of a new media phenomenon, also exemplified by Howard Stern scoffing at the deaths of anti-vax radio hosts, seeming to celebrate, or at least to insensitively track, deaths of vaccine sceptics. Every unvaccinated death is reported in a somewhat ironic tone, ending with a heart-wrenching plea from the family of the deceased.
The implication from these liberal media figures is that these dumb hicks should have trusted the medical establishment instead of taking “horse goo”, a reference to Ivermectin which has become a controversial and even “right-wing” means of treating Covid-19.
But is this the right approach to take? Aside from being not-a-little distasteful, if these pieces aim to encourage vaccine take-up, they are very much in danger of doing the opposite. Figures like Kimmel make money by appealing to their liberal audience and hitting the same targets they always do, but this will only serve to deepen the socio-political divide between the American left and right.
The frustration of those supporting the vaccine is quite understandable. But vaccine hesitancy, despite the bizarre-seeming conspiracy theories of the most extreme quacks and cranks, is not as irrational as might be thought. The almost novel use of mRNA technology is enough to spook anyone. To believe that this new vaccine will work requires some faith in the medical establishment and in the government officials supporting the vaccine – faith that has been repeatedly undermined by a track record of incompetence and outright dishonesty on health.
In the UK, alleged lies about testing, the PPE contracts scandal, and a general atmosphere of confusion and catastrophe have seriously undermined the authority of the Department of Health. Overseas, our American cousins have struggled with a slew of health-related public relations crises: the Theranos affair (involving the sale of faulty blood tests), Fauci’s dubious treatment of the lab-leak hypothesis, and Perdue Pharma’s role in the opioid crisis illustrate the general trend of dishonesty and cynical manipulation pervasive throughout the health establishment. Given the tendency of American moods to leach into British culture, it is unsurprising that few trust health officials.
At the same time, the public has lost faith in the ability of mainstream media to treat political matters with impartiality. Media’s unprecedented silencing of a presidential candidate; media removing and obscuring allegations against Joe Biden’s son and against the candidate himself; and dismissal of the lab-leak theory out of hand with little evidence have all created an image, fair or unfair, of a media ecosystem that will bow down to the political establishment irrespective of the facts at hand.
So far, vaccine sceptics have been treated to a mix of derision, fearmongering, and censorship. Insensitive treatment of anti-vax deaths works to alienate sceptics; added censorship makes them feel like their concerns are being hidden, not addressed. In a world where anti-vax ideologues have developed their own separate news environment, censorship does not keep ideas from spreading. It only lends credence to the idea that there is some dangerous element of truth to the ideas being censored, preventing conspiracies from being exposed to the light of reason- where they turn to dust.
We have seen this mistake before – the mix of mockery, censorship and fearmongering once more comes back to bite. “Project Fear” and Hilary Clinton’s “deplorables” comment, reminiscent of the current treatment of vaccine sceptics, served only to exacerbate the impression of establishment condescension that fed the Brexit and Trump phenomena to begin with. The refusal to engage with the ideas of anti-vaxxers – bizarre and conspiratorial as they may seem – leaves the underlying distrust to fester.
Personally, I approached the decision to get vaccinated with caution at first. The fertility issue, and the novelty of the mRNA vaccine (which I did not properly understand nor fully trust), gave me cause for concern. What eventually calmed my nerves was not self-satisfied ridicule on the part of the vaccinated, nor crudely manipulative sob stories, but good-faith engagement with my specific concerns – archives on the vaccine and pregnancy, studies on fertility, and in-depth, patient explanations of the fallacious concerns raised by dubious scientists.
There is a balance to be struck with the conversation around vaccines. While we must be understanding, it is hard to avoid being patronising or dismissive of specific worries. People who refuse the vaccine ought still to be treated with respect, but this cannot turn to complacency nor irresponsible negligence to warn people of the dangers of remaining unvaccinated. Being honest, respectful and straight with the facts will go a long way to help people to make informed choices for the benefit of themselves and others – the liberal establishment is doing the opposite by engaging in a campaign of shaming and silencing all opposition.
An article by Chris Snowdon in Quillette engages properly with the concerns of the vaccine hesitant – Snowdon is no stranger to using humour to punctuate his commentary, but instead of engaging in generalisations, excuses, and accusations, he confronts concerns head on, and explains in detail the faulty reasoning that has led to illogical conclusions, including the bizarre idea that the vaccines are making people magnetic.
In a democratic society dependent on the actions of individuals, we cannot lose the ability to engage in good-faith discussion. By mocking, deriding and shunning a group we disagree with, we only drive them further away and make division, distrust and suspicion even more likely. To restore their faith in both experts and the opposition requires an outstretched hand rather than condescension.