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How COVID Leaves Trust In the Dust How COVID Leaves Trust In the Dust

How COVID Leaves Trust In the Dust

A severe social side effect of the pandemic is the disconnection between those in authority we must trust and our personal experiences that contradict what we’re told, Travis Smith writes.

Travis D. Smith
8 minute read

As justifiably proud as Canadians are about their health care system, carping about our experiences with medicine is a national pastime, too. Presented with a novel technology under today’s unusual conditions, it is unsurprising that some of the same old frustrations and complaints take on new relevance.

Doctors routinely know more than they let on, and they sometimes know less than they pretend to. They act this way because they need us to trust them—which is ironic, because whenever patients suss it out, it breeds distrust.

Sometimes in their role as prescribers our doctors can do little more than be our best guessers: Let’s try this drug at this dose, and if that doesn’t work or the side-effects are too disagreeable, we’ll go with that one at this. It can make us feel like we’re data points as much as we’re patients.

Many of us have witnessed friends or family members endure adverse reactions to medications that were approved in the usual timeframe without the same degree of urgency that surrounds the COVID vaccines. Some medications fall into disfavour once new risks are discovered. Some medications get prescribed regularly despite our knowing how damaging they can be because they represent our best available options, making additional drugs necessary to counteract their more deleterious effects. You might know someone who lost someone on account of how their meds for one ailment contributed to some unrelated terminal condition.

These kinds of stories may be reckoned anecdotal when tallied in the aggregate, but they’re the sorts of anecdotes everybody has. And what about the tons of money involved in the pharmaceutical and medical industries? It’s another something that adds to people’s distrust. We can all agree we are definitely very grateful for everything our doctors, nurses, technicians, surgeons, and therapists do for us ordinarily, and on occasion, extraordinarily. We’re all aware of the rigorous training they undergo and the sacrifices they make on our behalf. That we have so many elderly people so vulnerable to COVID is a testament to how impressive our medicines and medical practitioners are.

Still, even if many of the concerns detailed above are not directly pertinent to the discussion of the new vaccines, they all contribute to the uncertainty regarding how much trust the art of medicine deserves in comparison with how much we usually give it—a question that weighs heavily when suddenly embracing some fantastic innovation in desperate times.

People have concerns, for instance, about what kinds of immune system reactions this new technology might trigger, or what other unexpected side-effects or long-term risks it might entail. Accompanying the rollout of first few doses of the vaccine in mid/late December there were some incongruities in the footage, and of course, some reports of allergic reactions among some recipients, but not enough to cause a panic. Trusting that the results of the trials are reliable with respect to the general safety of the vaccines—something I am not disputing—it is nonetheless understandable why people might wonder how unexpected long-term adverse consequences could be ruled out given the time frame in which trials were conducted.

I know that they have assured us there will not be any. But we also know how complex the human body is, and that scientists are constantly making new discoveries about how it works. The sciences on which these technologies are based are not yet perfect and complete in their knowledge. That is why well-funded research remains ongoing.

In the end, for all but anyone who is genuinely knowledgeable in all of the relevant sciences, accepting that the vaccines are safe and effective is something that can only be taken on trust. Everyone must exercise their own judgment and heed their conscience. It certainly is not my place to tell anyone who and what to trust, what to do or not. I don’t possess the relevant expertise to know for certain; that much is certain.

Every now and then I hear someone in the media telling people who are unsure to “get educated.” The Internet is now full of diagrams and animations offering explanations of how mRNA vaccines work in a nutshell. Some of the cartoons I’ve seen are almost as fun as episodes of Schoolhouse Rock!

The very same people in the news media will summarily dismiss the opinions of anyone who isn’t a scientific expert or medical professional. This means, however, that the very people they tell to get educated could not possibly be expected to get meaningfully educated by the standards they apply for what it means to be educated.

Meanwhile, the news anchors themselves haven’t completed postdocs in the biological sciences, either. Neither have our political leaders. For the overwhelming majority of people, the instruction to “get educated” can amount to little more than “learn to trust us.”

In higher education, where I work, we’re all now getting used to teaching via Zoom, but I don’t expect anyone to provide non-experts with the untold hours of online remedial to advanced and specialized instruction in the relevant sciences that would be required for people to obtain an understanding of the new vaccines, their mechanisms and risks, sophisticated enough to qualify as truly educated. That’s before getting to the necessary hands-on laboratory experience. So, we’re stuck with trust. Pretending otherwise is disingenuous.

Laypeople have fair questions like: “Why do the many people who have already recovered naturally from the virus need the vaccine?” and “If the Ontario government wants to provide people with only one dose but the manufacturer says you need two, whose science am I supposed to trust?”

Read the third article of Convivium's COVID-19 series: Travis Smith argues reassurances about vaccine safety will convince only some of the people some of the time.

I am confident there are straightforward answers to everyone’s questions. However, treating people who have honest questions derisively, as if they’re superstitious dummies beholden to “myths” who just have to get their facts straight by deferring to supercilious fact-checkers, is apt to cement resistance rather than dissolve it. Unless people possess expertise in the relevant sciences, they are left being asked to take those who address their questions and concerns at their word. Of course, this may explain the general impatience we see with people’s questions. Medical professionals have long experience watching patients who think they know better fail to follow their explicit instructions and best advice—by not completing a full regimen of antibiotics, for example. But then again, remember when we learned that the over-prescription of antibiotics has had negative consequences for human health, too?

In the 21st century, we all have enough experience with glitchy new technologies full of bugs needing patches and fixes. It is not “anti-science” to be prudent about new technologies, especially under conditions of great anxiety, stress, uncertainty, confusion, hardship, and vulnerability. When it comes to environmental concerns, for instance, a precautionary attitude is often advocated.

Under the present circumstances, I do not see how it can be called unreasonable if somebody wants to take a let’s-wait-and-see attitude toward this latest innovation—especially since it fits the definition of something extremely invasive. This is not a hat you could theoretically take on or off. That said, people who plan to hold off may find themselves wondering how feasible it is to draw a line if what we’re presented with presently is not merely a single novel preventative for a singular new ailment, but rather the instauration of a wondrous new regimen of routinized injections for countless conditions. If so, then refusing to participate might put you in the same position as someone in the mid-1990s who thought they could opt out of email indefinitely.

People’s honest confessions of ignorance in the face of difficult decisions, and their right to exercise their own judgment accordingly, when it comes to matters such as personal health and autonomy, are worthy of our respect, not our contempt. It is worth observing that people expressing reservations about the vaccines come from across the ideological spectrum. This is not a left-wing-versus-right-wing thing. Thankfully, that makes it harder for one party or side to caricature and demonize people for the positions they take on the issue. The unease people are feeling is not determined by religious affiliation, either. This is not a matter of enlightened secular persons versus backward fundamentalists. The Vatican under the worldly Pope Francis has given these vaccines its imprimatur despite potential moral contaminants. Meanwhile, many thoroughly secular individuals are unsure, and conscientious objections are no longer regarded as the sole preserve of the religiously devout.

Of course, it should go without saying, nobody who isn’t a misanthrope wants people to suffer more on account of an unsafe or ineffective prophylactic. Given that our front-line medical professionals themselves are among those prioritized to receive injections first, it would be catastrophic if they aren’t as advertised. With the Canadian Armed Forces involved in their distribution, we must hope they work as promised; nobody wants our servicemen and servicewomen ensnared in a scenario in which civilian casualties result from the orders they followed. All told, nobody with hesitations should take any satisfaction should their reservations receive validation.

Unfortunately, trust in the media, government, and big business was already low enough before we were transported to this Timid New World in 2020. Overt political bias and censorship in the news media and on social media platforms have fed into that distrust. We have been regularly bombarded with stories about foreign meddling in all of those settings for years, too.

There’s no confidence that there’s any accountability anywhere, either; our elites are going to live charmed lives no matter what happens and no matter what mistakes they make. Meanwhile, accusations of corruption and hypocrisy abound.

Over the past year, policy decisions regarding COVID—provincially, nationally, and internationally—seem full of reversals, equivocations, and arbitrariness, even if they’re really based on sincere efforts by policymakers to do their best given incomplete, imperfect, and evolving information. In early modern times, when the argument for the separation of church and state was developed, the argument wasn’t just that it will protect politics from religion; it would protect religion from politics. Trust in God’s will erodes when what’s called God’s will changes as often as the policies and priorities of governments do.

Similarly, policymakers have repeatedly told us to trust and follow the science without being able to maintain a steady course, undermining trust not only in our elected officials and permanent bureaucracies but, what is arguably worse, also in science itself. We have occasionally seen rogue experts or conflicted professionals castigated for raising doubts or asking questions about the science or the policies premised upon it, too. We cannot help but wonder how many others have gotten the message and learned to keep their heads down, with or without explicit instruction from their employers or professional associations.

There is, moreover, a sense of disproportion and incoherence regarding the things we’re supposed to worry about. The same people who treat plastic straws as an existential threat assure us that these latest innovations are no cause for alarm.

Kamala Harris told the American public prior to the election that she would not take any vaccine that was developed under the auspices of the President she was then contesting—but she has since come around. And when was the last time you heard anyone recite that whopper about the wet market?

During the current lockdown, people are stuck having to trust an authority that tells them that the situation is out of control (and this time they really mean it)—even when their personal observations, experiences, and conversations within their own communities offer little confirmation of these claims. The result is a sense of disconnect. People see graphs published to prove the severity of the crisis that mix daily and cumulative numbers in grossly deceptive ways and cannot help but feel manipulated. But if you don’t draw the approved conclusions from what numbers are made public, it’s only because you’re not reading the data right. There are so many unknowns and so much confusion. People are understandably bewildered by everything that’s going on.

Read part five of Convivium's COVID-19 series: Coping With COVID’s Confusion

Convivium publishes texts that do not necessarily reflect the views held by Cardus, the Convivium team, or its editors. In the spirit of discussion, dialogue, and debate, we ask readers to bear in mind that publication does not equal endorsement. Thanks for reading. Join the conversation!

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