Just a few weeks ago, a friend of mine revealed to me that he was going to be joining the ranks of the Canadian un-vaccinated. He had reviewed the information at hand and was making what he considered a well informed decision on the matter.
What followed was a month’s long effort on my part to unpack the tremendously tangled web of mis-information and innuendo that has come to surround COVID-19. This is not a loosely strung together series of tid-bits, but rather a well-tuned, intricate effort to convince the world that the COVID vaccine is a bad idea.
My journey took me into some fairly dark corners as I subjected myself to a number of the more well-known celebrities of the anti-vaxx movement. After coming to realize that the level of sophistication involved in weaving this tapestry of trepidation and fear was well above my ability to unravel it, I contacted a Canadian organization called ScienceUpFirst. This group of clinicians, scientists and academics has come together specifically to combat the massive amount of mis-information that has been spread web-wide about COVID-19 vaccinations.
This organization was co-envisioned by Nova Scotia’s very own Senator Stan Kutcher during a conversation with University of Alberta’s Dr.Timothy Caulfied and has been running since early 2021. I had an opportunity to catch up with Senator Kutcher a few days ago and ask him about ScienceUpFirst, and get his take on the entire anti-COVID vaccine movement.
The Senator explained that the roots of this could be traced back decades to a certain segment of the population’s “increasing disquietude” with government. With the rise of populism and groups like Q-Anon, there has been an expanding political discourse that questions expertise. As this has increased, Dr. Kutcher noted a decreased ability for government agencies to respond. He thought what was needed was a national, non-governmental approach to debunking the many myths swirling around COVID-19. Thus, ScienceUpFirst was born.
The amount of mis-information that has been circulated, mostly by the anti-vaccine industry, has reached such proportions that the World Health Organization (WHO) has referred to the situation as an “info-demic”. When I asked Dr. Kutcher about this he explained all of us have a certain level of suspicion, which is generally healthy. However, that penchant for suspicion becomes problematic when it is being stoked by fear and propaganda.
“When there is fear,” he explained, “People more easily accept falsehoods. The very heart of propaganda is that it pairs a true statement with a false one. Much of the anti-vaxx success has come from their ability to lead [people] from a truism to a falsehood.”
As an example, he pointed to the Pfizer vaccine. A concern has recently surfaced that the vaccine increases the chances of a patient developing myocarditis, which is an inflammation of the heart muscle. The condition can be quite frightening, and includes chest pains, shortness of breath and palpitations, although the symptoms that present after receiving a vaccination are generally mild. This has occurred in about 1 out of every 50,000 patients who have received Pfizer injections. However, myocarditis occurs in about 1 out of every 50 cases of COVID-19, and is generally much more severe.
When it comes to sowing the seeds of doubt, Kutcher sees this as a prime example. By starting with a truism then over emphasizing the risk, it becomes much easier to lead people to an erroneous conclusion about the relative safety of the vaccine. In the name of simplification, he used the example of getting eaten by a shark. The risk is ridiculously low, but for those of us of a certain generation, being “afraid to go back into the water” is a particularly poignant analogy.
I found this last bit very telling, because this is the exact rationale that anti-vaxxers often use when claiming that our response to COVID-19 was overblown. Many on that side of this particular fence would argue that our assessment of the risks involved with COVID-19 was driven by media-stoked fear. The impact of restrictions will end up being far greater than the impact of COVID would have ever been. COVID only killed the old, the weak and the poor, in countries with high poverty rates and uneducated populations, so why did we need to shut down? (I believe I mentioned I had visited some “dark corners”.)
When asked about this, Kutcher paused for a moment before explaining that in many cases, a very real “structure of belief” develops in individuals, eventually reaching a point similar to fundamentalism. Once an individual gets so far down any path of belief, they begin to interpret events through a lens of affirmation. The more that happens, the more entrenched their beliefs become. Then other people can either be converted to accept their point of view, or the two sides can stop talking to each other.
Well, I don’t have much interest in not talking to my friend again. That particular bridge is certainly worth preserving, if for no other reason than for the amount of water that has passed beneath it. And although much of the anti-vaxx information I found was a bit “out there”, not all the vaccine hesitant people I encountered were. In many cases, people were simply looking for information and had arrived, for reasons that still escape me, at a very different conclusion than I had.
If a bit of suspicion is healthy, then it seems that a quick Google search of “Is the COVID vaccine safe?” would be a responsible action for anyone to take. As well, much like reports of shark attacks in Australia still give me a moment’s pause before entering my own lake (freshwater, landlocked) reading “Pfizer linked to increased risk of myocarditis” should cause at least some concern.
The real question, however, is how one handles the next click of the mouse.
I still know where I stand on the vaccine debate, but after all of this, I can at least see why someone could become convinced otherwise. And who knows, perhaps history books will judge me the fool in all of this.
In the meantime, however, I will happily take my second shot, trusting Health Canada, the WHO, and my own family physician along the way.
I will also undoubtedly spend a fair bit of time this summer updating every lesson I have ever taught regarding media literacy and the importance of checking one’s sources.