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Anti-vax and the age of trust nobody

August 30, 2020

When your doctor prescribes you a drug you haven’t taken before, or you go to a pharmacist and buy a medicine off the shelf, do you ever bother to read the little sheet of paper that comes with the packet? Perhaps you do, and perhaps you’re scared witless by all the side-effects that the drug company is obliged to list that are associated with the product you’re about to ingest.

If you’re sufficiently frightened, perhaps you then go to the internet, and search on “paracetamol side-effects” or some such query. You become further horrified by the stories people post about the drug in question. You don’t ask yourself why people who have no side effects don’t bother to register their satisfaction. You focus on the downside.

Perhaps you consider yourself a critical thinker, and discount the crap you read on the internet, but watch out for stories in mainstream newspapers about new research results, because you think that papers like the Daily Mail and the Times have done their homework and won’t feed you bullshit click-bait.

If you’re of a certain generation, you remember the thalidomide scandal. Pregnant mums prescribed medication to stop them vomiting ended up delivering babies without legs and arms, or limbs so grievously stunted that they would never be of any use to their unfortunate owners. If you’re of the same age of those children, you shudder and think there but for the grace of God.

I get it. I really do. There are enough risks in the world, and to willingly take a risk with our lives and those of our children seems crazy. And as for us adults, are we taking layer upon layer of medication to mitigate a chain of side effects produced by each successive drug we take? And yes, should I ever have a need for Viagra, I probably wouldn’t take it in case my vision turned blue and I keeled over with a heart attack.

No matter that our chances of being killed on the road, struck by lightning, electrocuted by a hair dryer or drowned while swimming in the sea are far greater than the 0.01 percent of adverse side effects cited by the drug companies, why add to risks that we can control?

But vaccines? Sorry, but I just don’t get it. It’s true that we take a leap of faith when we go for our flu jabs. And there’s no little piece of paper on hand warning us of the side effects when we take our kids for their MMR courses. Have we so lost our sense of perspective that the chances of our children catching a potentially fatal disease like measles seem less scary than the remote possibility that they will become afflicted with autism or some other condition?

Do we take no account of the fact that vaccines have eradicated smallpox and are close to ridding us of polio? Perhaps not, because few of us have seen the effects of smallpox, or met someone, as I have, whose life was stunted by polio.

We don’t think of the success stories, not because they’re unremarkable but because they’re history. Just as we don’t think of the millions of people with HIV who are able to live relatively normal lives because of anti-viral medication. Unless we happen to have HIV, of course.

It’s the horror stories that get our attention, whether or not they’re fake or built on dubious evidence. Just as around every corner there’s a paedophile ready to abduct our kids, a mugger ready to knife us for our wallets and phones, an internet scammer ready to drain our bank accounts or a murderer ready to kill us for fun.

The world is a very dangerous place, says Donald Trump. So dangerous that we need to buy guns to protect ourselves, and if we aren’t allowed guns, we must turn our homes into fortresses and keep knives and baseball bats in strategic locations.

Yet I fail to understand the anti-vax sentiment, when simple jabs have made the world immeasurably safer for the vast majority of the global population. Is it because the virus that is most fiendishly difficult to inoculate against – fear – has twisted our minds away from all sense of proportion and perspective? Is it because the younger we are, the more days of life we notionally have in the bank, and the more fearful we are that we might lose them? Or is it that the older we are, the more keenly aware we are of a diminishing resource, and the less inclined to take risks?

Or is it that the order of the day is trust no one? That this is the side-effect of the most addictive drug of all – the internet. And where there is fear, there is anger. And when fear and anger rage, exploitation and manipulation take wing. People do inexplicable things, think inexplicable thoughts. And some make a fortune on the back of other people’s fear.

We gave our kids their jabs without hesitation. Every year my wife and I have our flu jabs. If a COVID jab becomes available, we’ll be first in the line. If either of these vaccinations cause us problems, so be it, our life bank accounts are depleted anyway, and all sorts of other things can carry us off without the assistance of vaccines.

Perhaps I’ve lost all sense of perspective, but I completely fail to understand why a significant minority of people in my country would only consider having a COVID vaccination, unless they’ve lost confidence in the medical profession, those people whom they applauded week after week during lockdown. Or perhaps it’s because they’ve lost any sense of certainty about any aspect of their lives that intersects with those of others, or about the world beyond their own experience and imagination.

If it’s the latter, then we have a problem far more serious than smallpox, polio and COVID put together.

Or perhaps I am indeed suffering from perspective failure, because instead of giving thanks for the internet as a tool for cooperation, knowledge-building, education, entertainment and commerce, I’m focusing on anti-vax, viral fear, conspiracy theories, QAnon, Russian bots and cybercrime.

Finally, I go back once again to my favourite Josef Stalin quotation: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.” Maybe we should adapt that for our age: “if only one person dies of a preventable disease, that is a tragedy. If millions survive, that’s salvation.”

Perhaps it’s time we got back to thinking about the millions.

From → Education, Politics, Social, UK, USA

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