From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Vaccines and anti-vaxers

November 11.  The problem with patrician mavericks like Lord Sumption is that they give intellectual cover for much less fastidious figures.

A week after his Cambridge Freshfields Lecture, Nigel Farage and Richard Tice crawled out of the decaying wreckage of the Brexit Party and announced the creation of ‘Reform UK’ dedicated to the libertarian rejection of the Government’s lockdown policy. 

They wrote in the Daily Telegraph that “It’s time to end the political consensus that there is no alternative to shutting people up in their homes.  The institutions and polices that require change are formidable, and once gain we will have to take on powerful vested interests… We are showing the courage needed to take on consensus thinking and vested interests.”*

As with Sumption and the Great Barrington Declaration that they support, there is a wholesale rejection of the authority of political and medical elites.

In terms of the lockdown, this may no longer be important.  With this week’s announcement of an effective vaccine, the focus of the argument is shifting to the issue of take-up.  Already the anti-vaxxers are attacking the alleged consensus thinking – that the medical establishment is united in regarding the Pfizer results as a major breakthrough even though regulatory approval has not yet been given – and the ‘vested interests’ behind it – particularly big pharma and Bill Gates.**

A succession of studies during the pandemic have described the scale of the anti-vax movement and the strength of its online presence (see also posts on July 7, July 15, August 11).  Politico reports a Eurobarometer survey stating that nearly half of Europeans believe that vaccines are a danger to health.***  Last month The Lancet carried a story based on a study made by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate.  It found that one in six British people were unlikely to agree to being vaccinated, and a similar proportion were undecided.  Traffic on social media was growing.  Globally, 31 million people followed anti-vaccine groups on Facebook and 17 million were subscribing to similar accounts on YouTube.****  A more parochial investigation of Totness published this week in the Guardian, found a thriving Facebook community opposed to face masks, lockdown, and vaccination.*****

It might be argued that such surveys do not matter.  Despite the Pfizer breakthrough, there is no vaccine available today, no real-life decision to make.  Opinion is bound to change once there is a call from the GP surgery.  The question is what the take-up will then be, given that the online anti-vax movement is evidently capable to responding negatively to any claimed medical advance.  It needs to be somewhere near 95% fully to eradicate the virus.

The issue constitutes an interesting case history for the capacity of digital communication to shape private behaviour.  There is a tendency in the critical literature to assume that networked messages have a direct effect on the actions of those who receive them.  That is what power means. The fertility of the conspiracies, the scale of the readership and of the investment in them by advertisers, lead to the expectation that consumers will do things they otherwise would not do if they relied solely on more traditional forms of communication.

In this instance the online-messaging will compete with conventional newspaper, radio and television outlets which at least in Britain are united in their support of the scientific breakthrough, even though some opponents are finding their way onto chat shows.  For all the damage caused to the standing of politicians and administrators during the pandemic, medical researchers retain authority.  The roll-out of the vaccine will start with care-home residents, who are unlikely to be spending their enclosed days following Facebook conspiracy theories, and with eighty-year-olds in the community who will not share the online-habits of eighteen year-olds. Then there are the opinions of close friends and relatives whose views you respect and whose respect you do not want to lose. 

I dare not contemplate the response were I to tell my children that I have decided to let nature take its course.

*https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/11/01/relaunching-brexit-party-fight-cruel-unnecessary-lockdown/

**https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/10/coronavirus-anti-vaxxers-seek-to-discredit-pfizers-vaccine?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

***https://www.politico.eu/article/how-populists-spread-vaccine-fear/

****https://www.thelancet.com/journals/landig/article/PIIS2589-7500(20)30227-2/fulltext

*****https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/11/totnes-covid-concerns-reflect-uk-wide-rise-in-conspiracy-theories?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

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