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

From David Maughan Brown in York: Lockdown blood-pressure

June 14th

For many years in Pietermaritzburg I had my blood-pressure measured more or less every week prior to my having two pints of blood removed so that the plasma could be extracted for the manufacture of an anti-rabies vaccine and the red corpuscles returned to one or other of my arms, both of which still look as if I’ve been mainlining all my life.  My parents had been attacked by a rabid dog in Sierra Leone before I was born; without an effective vaccine I wouldn’t have been born; so it was a kind of pay-back.   Through all the years of apartheid Special Branch harassment, post-apartheid student protests, and everything else South Africa threw at us, my blood pressure, as tested on Monday afternoons, never varied an iota: 100 over 70.  In a much more relaxed retirement, weighing less, and with none of the usual risk factors, my blood-pressure has rocketed over the past two or three months to the point where  I am having to take medication to bring it down from the stratosphere.  Lockdown itself isn’t stressful, so the only possible cause I can come up with is the cack-handed way Covid-19 has been handled and, in particular, the blatant dishonesty and hypocrisy, and the blindingly obvious lack of logic of our ‘leaders’.

When it comes to the dishonesty, where does one start?  Given that I can’t spare the time to write ten pages, perhaps I should restrict myself to the first two blood-pressure-raising examples that to come to mind.  Anyone who has been paying any attention knows that the ‘official’ statistic for the death toll from Covid-19 that the government trots out every day, and the BBC dutifully repeats, having avidly listened with its virtual head cocked to one side like the dog in the His Master’s Voice trademark, is a deliberate lie.  It is the figure only for the number who have died after being tested and, as we know, Hancock and company were culpably slow in getting adequate testing up and running.  Even leaving aside the figure for excess deaths, they should be adding in the figures for those who hadn’t been tested but for whom coronavirus had been cited as a cause for their death on their death-certificates.  Meanwhile Matt Hancock keeps adamantly insisting that he ‘threw a protective ring around the care-homes.’   If he did throw his metaphorical protective ring around the care-homes, he must have smeared it with metaphorical novichok first.  How otherwise can one account for a ‘protective ring’ that results in the deaths of more than 16,000 of those it is supposed to be protecting?  Every time I hear another person grieving about a lost parent or grandparent who died in a care-home, that lie intrudes again.

Where hypocrisy is concerned, government endorsement of Cummings’ ‘perfectly understandable’ eye-test comes to mind, but today’s particular gem is ventriloquist-dummy Johnson, no doubt also listening avidly to his master Cummings’ voice, earnestly telling the world that he and Priti Patel won’t put up with ‘racist thuggery’.   What does he think he and his kindred spirit, Nigel Farage, have been doing for the past three years except deliberately flaming the virulent combination of English Nationalism, xenophobia and racist thuggery which took them to their marginal referendum result, then onward and downward to Boris’s success in the General Election, and has now contributed to the violence exercised against the Black Lives Matter protesters and the police?

Where logic is concerned, nobody appears to have even tried to explain the logic whereby one grandparent living by himself or herself can safely form a “bubble” with a family, but, if both are still alive, neither – let alone both – are legally permitted to immerse themselves in the very same ‘bubble’, irrespective of how rigorously they have been self-isolating up to now.   But the supreme illogicality, particularly for a government seemingly agonized over the economy, lies with the recently imposed quarantine on selected people entering the country.  Leaving the USA, Brazil and Sweden aside, almost every single one of the other 200+ countries in the world has handled Covid-19 better than our government, and has a population less likely than ours to carrying the infection as a consequence.  So our government ‘quarantines’ people who are less likely to be infected than the people they will encounter in UK, first by telling them to self-isolate for 14 days, and then by letting them wander off to catch public transport to whatever address they have decided to give, wherever they please in the country, on condition that they promise, ‘scout’s honour’, to be good.  Surely people don’t need Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, to tell them how stupid that is?  There are however, as one would expect, some sheer genius exceptions.  One of the many categories selected for exclusion from the ‘quarantine’ is long-distance lorry-drivers.  This may be sensible from an economic point of view but, given that almost all the countries in Europe have far fewer Covid-19 infections than the UK, it is very peculiar, to say the least, from the perspective of disease control.   Without wishing to impugn the behaviour of long-distance truck drivers, it is worth noting that the spread of HIV/AIDS in southern Africa has been tracked down the routes used by the long-haul truckers.

There is, however, a possible blood-pressure lowering interpretation of this otherwise absurdly illogical ‘quarantine’.   Perhaps our government, instinctively inclined to avoid being upfront about anything at all, for all the supposed ‘transparency’ of the daily Downing Street news conference, has undergone a radical, road-to-Damascus-type conversion.   Perhaps it has relinquished the comfort of its ‘hostile environment’, recanted on its implicit endorsement of Johnson’s ‘piccanninnies’, ‘watermelon smiles’ and comparison of women in burkas to ‘letterboxes’, regretted its racist handling of the Windrush scandal and decided it really likes foreigners after all.   Perhaps it really likes them so much, in fact, that it wants to protect the ones who are forgiving enough to visit our country from the possibility of being infected by the rest of us.  Two foreigners did, after all, save Boris’s life – perhaps this is his pay-back.  Our government couldn’t, of course, be upfront about so radical a conversion, as that would instantly lose them every last shred of their credibility with their Trumpian ‘base’.  Perhaps – but, then again, perhaps not.