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COVID's Contagion of DisbeliefCOVID's Contagion of Disbelief

COVID's Contagion of Disbelief

Drug companies touting new pandemic vaccines should be causing huzzahs. But Peter Menzies warns septic skepticism in the body politic must also be addressed.

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Topics: Culture, Health, Policy, Trust, Theory, Social Isolation and Loneliness, COVID-19
COVID's Contagion of Disbelief November 18, 2020  |  By Peter Menzies
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Today’s news that not one but two COVID-19 vaccines have tested 95 per cent effective casts a welcome burst of light into Canada’s gloomy COVID-19 narrative amid signs the pandemic is ripping into its social fabric.

Moderna announced Monday that its vaccine candidate had proven to be 94.5 per cent effective in trials and that it intends to submit an Emergency Use Authorization to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asap. Meanwhile, Pfizer and its partner BioNTech followed up last week’s announcement on results from mRNA trials by confirming final results are five per cent higher than the 90 per cent originally announced.

Further review and regulatory approvals still await, including here in Canada, before delivery begins. But the companies say first doses could theoretically ship as early as the end of November. Certainly, it appears that in the first few months of 2021 there could be vaccines from which to choose. Gotta love Big Pharma, right?

But hold the rooftop cheering just yet. After all, in the ancient words of Neil Young, there’s the needle, and then there’s the damage done. Not from the vaccines themselves but rather, according to Angus Reid polling, from the fact only 39 per cent of Canadians say they would get an approved vaccine injection right away if one became available. And 23 per cent – almost a quarter of our 37.5 million people – believe the threat of COVID-19 has been exaggerated, assumedly by distrusted media and public officials.

When you consider that 66 per cent of the population must be vaccinated for the virus to be successfully suppressed, that’s a problem.

Such skepticism is growing globally, according to Timothy Caulfield of the University of Alberta where he is a professor of law, Research Director of its Health Law Institute, and current Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy.

“I’ve been studying this for decades and I’ve never seen anything like this” Caulfield told Stefani Langenegger of CBC Saskatchewan’s Morning Edition. “We knew that the spread of misinformation was going to be bad, but I was naively optimistic that people would recognize the value of science and the harm of misinformation and it wouldn’t deteriorate as badly as it has.”

“People are now watching science unfold - they don’t usually do that, right? - so they’re seeing the uncertainty. They’re seeing how studies don’t always go in the same direction. That's how science normally happens but people are watching this sausage being made and they don’t like what they see.”

Nor do they like the idea that – even in a good cause – the State’s power over them is being expanded. Rallies by anti-maskers continue to pop up across the country. An alarming number of otherwise sensible people seem convinced Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is planning to place thousands of us in COVID-19 concentration camps. We’re asked to believe that the paperwork has already been issued. Honest. The PM’s apparent conviction that it’s up to him whether or not Christmas occurs doesn’t help.

Ever the optimist, Timothy Caulfield insists that “if you use good science and engage people respectfully” the truth will prevail. Others don’t seem quite so sure.

Tom Sampson, the head of Calgary’s Emergency Management Agency, compared the COVID-19 pandemic to a tsunami and described on Twitter how while some people will stand and watch as the wave approaches, “the enlightened” head for the hills at the first warning. No doubt well-intended, he seemed oblivious to the fact bankruptcies in Canada grew by 20 per cent in September. Many of those “on the beach” may be among the 700,000 who have lost their jobs this year. They need to pay the rent and have no place else to go.

Then there’s Alberta Senator Paula Simons, who recently let the Twitterverse know she isolated herself for the past eight months. A self-described model COVID-19 citizen, she too appeared blind to the reality that her circumstances are profoundly different from those afforded the privilege of delivering her groceries.

How did we – the most highly educated cohort in the history of humanity – get here? We have the entirety of knowledge literally at our fingertips through our mobile and other devices connected to the Internet, and still we wait to find out which witch floats.

There will always be those who are truly kooks. But it’s worth considering whether it’s not so much the message but the messengers who are struggling here. Each of us is prone to accept “facts” most likely to reinforce our prior perceptions and needs. Even so, can we explain that while thousands fall ill, some refuse to accept reality and more still hesitate to participate in solutions?

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Maybe it’s because the same experts and media who are shouting at us to wear our masks were telling us as recently as April that wearing a mask is not the way to go and might actually increase the risk of transmission. Or that only racists wanted to close the border.

  • Or that the very voices who reported it was safe to go back to work are now telling us to work from home again. 
  • Or that while it’s not safe to be in groups of more than 15, it’s just fine for 30 or more people to gather for several hours every day in classrooms. 
  • Or that some of the models rolled out in April, backed by frightening headlines and breathless broadcasts, did not appear accurate a few months ago but may be turning out to be accurate after all. 
  • Or that well-spaced, well-ventilated church services and little kids’ hockey are life-threatening when kindergarten and daycare are not.

Or maybe it’s because on some days it feels like most journalists and presenters active on social media have become overnight public health “experts.” Didn’t similar instant “experts” tell us airplanes were going to fall out of the sky when computers crashed once their clocks turned to Jan. 1, 2000? Remember when the Arctic was going to be ice-free by 2013 and, when it wasn’t, no one bothered to explain how the “experts” could possibly have been so wrong?

And still we’re constantly asked to adopt the “expert” mantra on any number of issues that “the science is settled” when, as Caulfield points out, science by its nature tends to be messy as it progresses.

Whatever little wedges of mistrust were placed by these and similar events, it’s increasingly clear that while, yes, we’re all supposed to be in this together, we’re actually not. At all. As the voices of those who will never miss a paycheque or rent payment grow ever louder and less empathetic in demanding that others (but not them) sacrifice their livelihoods and blame them for rising COVID-19 deaths, the schism of anger and distrust risks widening.

This is an incredibly difficult challenge for public health authorities who need our support as they work to up their messaging game or suffer an increasing number of people tuning them out.

More and more, after all, are making fun of them. Commenting on restricted liquor and wine serving hours, one social media wit noted “last call is now at 10 p.m. because that’s what time the COVID comes out.” Another father, responding to the suspension of team sports, tweeted: “Hockey is cancelled so this afternoon I’m taking my son’s U9 team to the bar.”

Mockery is a poor foundation for stability, which we need to truly absorb even great news. Surely even the enlightened will see that.

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