from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: ‘and we shall be changed’

24 April, 2021.

Nine days ago, we had our first Astrazeneca vaccination. A suite of offices, consisting of four rooms, beside our large doctors’ surgery has been organised into a vaccination centre.

The whole process was very simple, without fuss and with a certain determined cheerfulness. Outside the centre, yellow lines marked the approved social distancing for the queue. We could not enter until the waiting room was sufficiently empty for the next batch of people, so we were asked to wait outside until it was within five minutes of our vaccination time. No masks were required.

Once we were allowed into the small foyer, our details were checked and we were asked whether we were prepared to have a vaccination before we were given a sticker inscribed with our first names. Someone asked if they had had many cancellations. The young receptionist said, ‘Very few, and those appointments have been quickly filled.’ It seems to me that the scare campaign has not stopped us wanting to be vaccinated.

A nurse called us and led us through to one of the two vaccination rooms. Once more details were checked and once more we were asked if we were prepared to have the vaccination. Then a doctor came in and she asked if we had any questions. She also asked if we had had any reactions to previous vaccinations.

Page 1. Read carefully….

The actual vaccination was a non-event. Afterwards, we were given a three-page document listing all the possible side-effects and what to do if we were concerned about our reactions. We were then led through to a large waiting area which was divided into two sections: one marked 15 minutes the other 30 minutes. The 30-minute section was for people who had had some previous adverse reaction to vaccination. I sat and read through the rather intimidating listing of common, less-common and rare side-effects. After the allotted time our names were called out and we were told we could go out the exit door. DONE!

Our vaccination status is immediately registered on our digital Medicare profile. I am ready for a vaccination passport and almost ready to travel! (New Zealand authorities are looking at insisting on a digital proof of vaccination).

It is now nine days since our vaccinations. At first, my arm felt slightly stiff, Over the next four days I found that I was very tired, wanting to go to bed at 8 pm and reluctant to rise at 7 am. I was quite happy to collapse back and read awhile. This is unlike me.

Australia – not looking too impressive.

It behoves me to report on the media situation with the rollout of vaccinations in Australia. If you followed our media, you would think that there was a disaster going on here. It is true that announcments were made by the Federal government, and we were filled with expectations of a seamless vaccination routine. However, there has been a hiatus due to many factors such as the concern over the AstraZeneca vaccine, the delayed arrival of ordered vaccines and the shortage of the Pfizer vaccine. Each state premier was very quick to blame others. Of course. There is also the difficulty of organising between state and federal agencies. Many of these factors are beyond the ability of the federal government to change. But as I have said before, the Australian media love to complain.

On our ABC this morning it was almost as though they were encouraging people in the 1b category (those over 70 or over 50 with some sort of complicating factor) not to get vaccinated. The Victorian Government has opened mass vaccination centres. The ABC was critical of this whole process, siting uncertainties and saying it was hard for people to understand the online advice. In spite of this, I hear today that 67,000 people were vaccinated. And the graph of those getting vaccinated is pointing in the right direction. The government has announced that over 50’s can now go and get vaccinated.

The trouble is that we are still short of the Pfizer and AZ vaccine.

The federal government will receive 53.8 million doses of AstraZeneca, 50 million of which is being manufactured in monthly batches at the CSL factory in Melbourne.

Australia has secured 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, with the bulk expected to arrive in the final three months of 2021.’ ABC

The government has now appointed a military veteran, Royal Australian Navy Commodore, Eric Young, to coordinate the vaccine rollout. After all, it is a mammoth task across this vast country. Young said he has a ‘simple mission’ to get every ‘available jab’ into the arms of vulnerable Australians. Scott Morrison has put the national cabinet on a ‘warlike footing’ to fix the delayed program.

On the way back from having my vaccination Handel’s Messiah played on ABC Classic radio. It’s good to be cheeful.

Somehow, the music seemed appropriate.

…..And we shall be changed
And we shall be changed
We shall be changed
And we shall be changed
We shall be changed

For this corruptible must put on
For this corruptible must put on
Must put on
Must put on, must put on

From Nike in Katerini, Greece: The Greek Accordion.

April 10, 2021

Accordion. In and out as required. It’s the nickname of the coronavirus strategy of Greece. Cases go up, we get locked in. Cases go down, we are allowed out. The accordion strategy has brought us to our fourth lockdown. In a few areas of Greece, they just entered a fifth, luckily, not where I am.

We are all feeling trapped in the accordion being blown around by those bellows and, and like an accordion when the bellows are moved in and out, there is a lot of noise. The unrest is loud. We have curfews too. After nine p.m. no one is allowed out on the streets unless they are essential workers or have a medical emergency. Nine p.m. is tough. Greece is geared for the night. At eleven at night, even families with babies and toddlers are a common sight strolling in parks and along restaurant strips.

But our restaurants, cafes and bars have been shut for seven months, not including the two months of the very first lockdown. Sunday mornings after church service the faithful once poured into the cafes, creating a bustling Christmas type atmosphere. Every Sunday. Not now though. It’s been so long since the matrons of Greece, young and old, have been to a church service or a café they now sit at home in their pyjamas watching the televised church services with just the clergy rattling around in huge empty churches. Greeks can’t wait to get dressed up again.

When the pandemic is eventually brought under control, I’m forecasting there will be promenades and parties so resplendent with colour and style they will become legendary. Nature has taken this opportunity to release some pressure and sent the floods, the snowstorms, the high winds. We thought we had seen it all and were feeling grateful the worst was over, then the earthquakes struck. There is nothing like a catastrophic natural event to take your mind off another catastrophic natural event.

Greece is a country of high seismic activity. Everybody is accustomed to a rumble here and there. Schools and workplaces have regular training for enduring and surviving an earthquake. There are no designer trendy desks in Greek schools. They are all sturdy with steel legs for students to shelter under and cling to in the event of a big quake. I’ve experienced a couple of small quakes of short duration in the past. Each time it was a couple of seconds of shaking. Uncomfortable, unforgettable, but inconsequential. Initially, it’s not the shaking that terrifies you. It’s the sound. A guttural groan rising from the earth. Only Nature can produce such stereophonic sheer terror. The earthquake went on for forty seconds. Forty seconds of blood-curdling screeching as if the Furies were descending upon us to tear us apart as they did Oedipus. Forty seconds of trying to stay upright and keep my wits about me.

Our little apartment is on the third floor of a five-storey building. The higher up you are the more you sway. And we were swaying so much I felt seasick. For forty seconds I kept looking at the walls waiting for cracks to appear. For forty seconds I gripped the door frame and waited for the falling to begin. For forty seconds I did not think of death. I thought of life. My only thought was to live to see my children and grandchildren again.

My poor mother was gripping the arms of the sofa and kept asking, ‘Why is the heater jumping around?’ I couldn’t get to her and if I could have, she couldn’t have made it to the relative safety of the door frame. I remember thinking, if she goes, she’ll go comfy. All I could do was try to shout over the horrific groaning swirling around us, ‘We’ll be okay.’ Forty seconds later came the quiet. I ran around checking everything in the apartment in case anything had shaken out of place. All was well. I rushed out onto the balcony and looked around. After what we had just heard and felt I knew the world was wounded. Nothing seemed out of place.

My mother’s sister, my aunt Viktoria, lives on the fifth floor. I ran up to check on her. Some of her glassware had smashed to the floor but otherwise she was well. I brought her down to our apartment and said to her and my mother, ‘Somewhere close by there is a lot of damage.’ I calmed them down with a hot meal before going online on my phone to check the news and to find out where the epicentre was. All it said was – ‘near the town of Elassona.’ The village where my father was born and is buried is near the town of Elassona. I immediately began calling aunts and cousins.‘We are fine. Very shaken. A few cracks here and there but we are fine.’ I hung up my phone as my aunt Viktoria was hanging up hers. She was pale with fear, ‘Turn on the television,’ she said. Her daughter, my cousin Jenny, lives near Elassona, in a village called Damasi. Every station was showing scenes of the earthquake. In the big red letters across the screen was written, ‘The epicentre was Damasi’.

Jenny is a dentist with her surgery in a neighbouring town. She was working on a patient in the chair when the earthquake struck. They managed to get out as debris was falling. She turned back before fleeing to see her expensive and sensitive equipment shimmying across the floor. The ten-minute drive to Damasi prepared her for what she would find. There were rockfalls everywhere. You reach Damasi by a bridge which spans over a river. The bridge had fallen. She sped to the second bridge tucked away behind a bend. It was damaged but still up. She closed her eyes and sped over it. Soon after she crossed that bridge collapsed too. Her house, right on the village square, was in ruins as was every building on the square. The school had completely collapsed.

She drove over to her husband’s winery. It seemed okay. He was there with their children. Jenny ran to them and saw the situation. The wine barrels had been shaken from their shelves and smashed to the floor. All his stock was destroyed. They had lost their home and their livelihoods in forty seconds. And insurance covered nothing.The entire region was without power. Pipes had cracked making whatever water came out of a tap undrinkable. Within a couple of hours, the army was mobilised as were their kitchens to produce three meals a day for the newly homeless and they erected tents on the soccer field and distributed winter-weight sleeping bags to give them somewhere to sleep. Most slept in their cars because of the cold.

The population of Damasi slept on the soccer field that night which was just as well because the next day there was another earthquake, shorter duration but equally strong. Two days later, there was another one. Whichever part damaged buildings were still up were now rubble.The quakes are still occurring. They will continue for at least the next two months as the earth tries to right itself after the collision of the tectonic plates. One month later and my cousin, her husband and two young sons are still sleeping in their vehicles. They are lucky. They have four. One regular car each, a delivery van, and a truck. They are sleeping a little easier since the government came forward with compensation packages and rebuilding plans. They’ve also offered to pay the rentals on any temporary home so my cousin and her family are about to move into a little house in a nearby town where at least they will have a real roof over their heads again while their home is rebuilt.

Those forty seconds changed the lives of many but for many more of us it gave us a break from living in the deep, dark shadow of Covid-19. The relief was brief and stark, a brutal reminder of who is really in charge on this earth. Nature. Just as Nature sends terror, she also sends hope through sights and sounds. The dull, grey skies are turning pink and white with blossoms bursting out of dry branches, and the birds are back. The squark of seagulls heralds the promise of summer which makes me imagine the feel of sand under my toes and the salty scent of sea spray. All my senses are being activated.

For the first time in a year, I heard children playing outside, giggling and babbling. We all know the children spent most of lockdown indoors with heads bent over a phone or tablet screen. You could feel their release at finally being allowed outside to play. They will return to school next week after months of lockdown. Hearing them outside again highlighted how surreal the life we are currently living really is. Things we once took for granted, blossoms, birds and babbling, today, for me, were sights and sounds so beautiful I now understand are sacred.

To vaccinate or not to vaccinate?I just received an email from the Greek government announcing they have received our applications for our vaccinations and for us to make our way to the nearest Citizens’ Bureau to proceed with booking an appointment. Do I fear side effects? No. I don’t fear poliomyelitis, tuberculosis, measles either – because I am vaccinated against them. For me, it’s a no brainer. I haven’t seen my children and grandchildren in almost two years. Being vaccinated means I will have an easier time travelling.

Freedom is only a jab away.

Christopher Merrett, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Guest Post. From the Thornveld: Views on life in the continuing crisis: part two

March 29,2021.

WE’VE just passed 23 March, the day the first UK lockdown began in 2020. The charity Marie Curie named it a ‘Day of Reflection’, and encouraged a minute’s silence at noon and distanced candlelight vigils at 8 pm. Reviewing my own twelve months, I see a satisfactory adaptation to practical matters: full initiation into working from home; shopping – deliveries and in person – sorted; a more extensive exercise programme than pre-lockdown; and other activities slotted in. I’m a busy person.

But there’s a blandness about life, a bit of Groundhog Day vibe, and there’s loads missing – the variety of happenings and stimuli, both planned and unexpected, that existed in the life before have diminished hugely. Social interaction is rarely by chance and largely online. The loss of spontaneity and surprise, and the limitations to human relationships, let alone the uncertainty that comes with a pandemic inevitably have their impact psychologically and emotionally. I notice my heart becomes heavier more easily, and that it requires fewer things these days to make me anxious. I think about my mortality every day – no bad thing, but a new one.

There is a changed quality to human interaction and a big contrast in styles. On the one hand we have frontline workers (NHS, social care, domestic violence helplines … ) who have stepped up to engage big-time and in profound ways with the public they meet, and others (supermarket staff, refuse collectors, bus drivers … ) continuing their usual service to keep things going. On the other, the pandemic has forced us into smaller contexts focused on our own needs and survival in alien circumstances, with not much time for or trust in others. There is a popular opinion that emergence from our current state into whatever evolves will be a difficult process, whether encumbered by over-enthusiasm or timidity, whether approached with an expectation of ‘getting my life back’ or with the daunting prospect navigating that emergence without a loved one.

At one of Marie Curie’s recent online discussions, ‘Are we really in this together?’, speakers highlighted the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the disabled and those with learning difficulties, and how Covid-19 and the death of George Floyd have raised awareness of the many facets of racism in the UK. Some communities have suffered more change and are having to make much more adaptation than others, usually the communities already afflicted by ten years of spending cuts. There is talk of learning lessons, having independent reviews and producing reports, received with a heavy dose of scepticism that anything will actually change. We’ve been here before. There is some optimism though that neighbourhood initiatives set up to support those in need during the pandemic will endure, and may even contribute to the development of ‘compassionate cities’.

This one year anniversary gives pause to think about the 126,000+ UK citizens who have died with Covid-19, and the potential number of related bereavements. There is huge concern about possible delayed trauma both for the bereaved and for healthcare workers. The experiences – exceptional and overwhelming – that many have been exposed to will not be assimilated quickly or easily into life narratives, and people will need help. Let’s all reveal and exercise our compassionate parts, and make ourselves available.

Further reading: The Compassionate City Charter — Compassionate Communities UK (

Screen Covid patients and NHS staff for post-traumatic stress, expert urges | Mental health | The Guardian

Penny Merrett, Sheffield

I’VE just had two weeks of something that looked oddly like a cold – congestion, tiredness, etc. It made me think, first, that I have been very well this year and that this illness has been out of the ordinary. A fact confirmed by the local hospital that has reported that influenza and gastro-intestinal illnesses have dropped drastically – a side effect of all the social distancing and hand sanitiser.

Second, though, it made me wonder how I had got an infection – given all the social distancing and hand sanitiser, how had I managed to catch an infection from someone else? And if I could catch a cold like this, how had I escaped a Covid infection or how close had I been to getting a Covid infection?

In the last blog I was bemoaning the lack of an approaching light from the end of the tunnel. The roll-out of the vaccine in Europe has been so slow that I wondered when it, the solution to all our current problems, would ever get to me. Politicians were telling us that this is a marathon, the immunisation of the whole population, not a sprint, but they seemed to be missing the point that even a marathon will never be run if it never starts. Slowly, slowly, stop – as fears were raised about the Astra Zeneca vaccine the French government joined other European countries in suspending the delivery of the vaccine. Amid reports that some batches of the vaccine were going out of date and being thrown away, the immunisation programme was halted because a few people encountered blood clotting problems. Statistically, it was within, or less than, the normal number of people who experience these problems but the anti-vax hysteria and scepticism meant that vaccinations had to halt. There was a strong suspicion that politics was being put ahead of science in this case – and cast further doubt on the EU’s ability to cope sensibly and adequately with this emergency.

The irony, for me, was that after wondering when I was going to get the vaccine, I was injected with the Astra Zeneca vaccine just days before its use was suspended, leaving me wondering if I was going to get the second dose! Now normal service has been resumed, so my second dose in June should be OK – unless there is another scare …

And how did I get the jab? We were walking the dogs at 9 am one morning when the doctor phones to ask ‘would you like to be vaccinated?’ Would we!!?? So at 11 am there we were, sleeves rolled up, receiving the vaccine. Not in the designated age group, not using up an opened bottle of vaccine – it was just that our GP was going down her list of patients and we were next to benefit from one of the two bottles of vaccine she gets each week. No orderly progression through the age groups or through the categories of at-risk patients here – this is France and this is the French way!

Cases of Covid are rising in France as I write, with the death rate steady at around 300 a day. The vaccination programme is going slowly, partly because people are reluctant but more because there is not enough vaccine to go around – we seem to be sending a lot of what we manufacture to the UK rather than using it ourselves. Paris is back in lockdown for four weeks and we continue to live with an overnight curfew. The third wave is here – though it is increasingly hard to talk about waves when the viral flood feels continuous.

Jonathan Merrett, Sallèles d’Aude

IT’S now over a year since the first Covid-19 case (5 March), and death (27 March), were recorded in South Africa. On that second date a severe lockdown was announced and a few observers suggested that ‘life would never be the same again’. I believe them to be correct in spite of optimistic pronouncements about returning ‘normality’, encouraged by vaccination.

We are now at a stage where people should know enough about the risks and their mitigation to make their own decisions. Many will have concluded that social interaction can be deadly and will change their behaviour forever with consequences both for them and society. Of course we have always been vulnerable to other people’s germs (I contracted TB in the 1980s and only found out by chance some years later from an X-ray), but not in modern times anything as virulent as this. Medicine will gradually reduce the danger, but not to the extent of eliminating much significant, recently learned cautionary behaviour.

Initially there was the idea that ‘we’re all in this together’. This lasted, possibly, for one lockdown. There are now clear signs of serious schism. Put simply – perhaps simplistically – there are those who demand that governments protect them from the virus and accuse officialdom of murdering their grannies. In the other corner are people demanding their rights, including hugging their grannies whenever they feel like it. Bridging this divide looks impossible and ultimately it will have political consequences.

Covid-19 has also encouraged authoritarianism and managerialism. Stand in a queue outside a bank and you will be ordered about mindlessly by someone in a uniform. Go to work and you will be hedged around by rules and regulations that are contradictory and applied to suit certain agendas. This is all for your own good; it always is.

And then there are the opportunistic organisations and individuals. Why, for example, can I use my local public library and provincial archives in much the same way as I go shopping? But I am not allowed into the library or even the grounds of the university. All face the same virus and challenges to manage it. I would suggest that working from home is a highly elastic and desirable concept in certain quarters.

Whichever way you turn, freedom and access are becoming more limited. This was already happening before March last year, but disasters whether of public health or finance accelerate and accentuate trends. Similarly, social media abuse and dirty political tactics (in South Africa this pops up as the doctrine of perpetual racial crisis) blossom still further.

It took nearly ten years for the political consequences of the 2008 financial meltdown – right wing populism – to take root. This disaster has been much more devastating, but more urgently managed, so maybe a similar time frame will operate. By that token, before 2030 we can expect to see serious change that at present is confined to the realm of imagination. But it’s unlikely to be encouraging.

Christopher Merrett, Pietermaritzburg

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: One’s Jab

February 26.To lifelong republicans, the Queen is a continuing disappointment.

Not only is she still protecting us from the unpalatable prospect of Charles III, she remains capable of embodying essential truths amidst a national crisis.

As the vaccination programme spreads out across the population, voices are being raised about potential discrimination against those who decline the offer. The people in question are not those who for medical reasons should not be vaccinated, such as pregnant women. Nor those who have somehow fallen through the cracks in the official bureaucracy and are not on the radar of the NHS.

We are discussing those who have been invited, could have accepted, and have refused. As I have written in earlier posts, when attitude becomes choice, the numbers of those declining seem to be much smaller than was at first feared. Nonetheless they do exist, and may multiply as the programme reaches younger cohorts who do not feel much threatened by a death on a ventilator.

It is argued that they could suffer discrimination if vaccine passports are issued, denying them access to pubs, restaurants and other organised pleasures, or, in the form of some yet to be agreed documentation, travel to the beaches of Europe. Or they could face actions by employers who will only recruit those who can prove they are unlikely to infect fellow workers or customers of the enterprise. This is seen to be unjust in the case of those who have comprehensible long-term issues with secular authority, including the NHS.

I assume that the Monarch was at the head of the queue when the vaccination programme started, if only because of her age. But today she has made a public statement about her experience:

“Once you’ve had the vaccine, you have a feeling of, you know, you’re protected, which is I think very important. I think the other thing is, that it is obviously difficult for people if they’ve never had a vaccine … but they ought to think about other people rather than themselves.”

The morality is not complex, but it is fundamental to the struggle against Covid-19 since the first lockdown eleven months ago. In all parts of the country, in all walks of life, people have taken actions which cause private harm in the interests of public good. And give or take the odd illegal rave and concealed wedding, mostly they are still doing so.

The current debate about the non-vaccinated threatens to reverse that calculation. The harm that is discussed focusses wholly on the individual, their right to make up their own mind on the risks of illness, their right to oppose any kind of injection, their right to uphold long-held religious objections, their right to dwell in the playground of conspiracy theorists, their right to earn a living irrespective of the health of the larger workforce.

Someone has to point out that they are just making a wrong decision. The Queen has done so. And she has said why.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Who goes first?

Lord Sumption. Wrong Again

January 18.  It’s getting nearer.  Last week a 93 year-old friend and neighbour was vaccinated.  Today it is announced that my cohort, the 70-plus and clinically vulnerable, are to receive invitation letters (in fact this morning’s post brings only a bank statement and the latest edition of the Journal of Cultural and Social History, ojoy).

Despite earlier fears, this is a party which most of us want to attend.  The latest survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveals that 86% of the population said they were ‘very or fairly’ likely to accept a vaccination in the period 7-10 January, up from 82% in before Christmas.  Most of the remainder were either uncertain or had already had it.  Only 3% responded that they were ‘very unlikely’ to take one, the same figure as those who by then had been vaccinated.*

Given the inescapable presence of hard-core conspiracy theorists in any population, this is as near to an general acceptance in principal as might be achieved at this stage in the process.   I argued in an earlier post (‘Anti-Vax’, July 7) that the numbers unloading to pollsters their grievances against the state, research-based science, big pharma, transmission masts, were likely to shrink once the hypothesis became a reality, and this appears to be happening.

According to the official timetable, the priority groups are to be vaccinated by mid-February, with the whole of the population gaining protection by September.  There remains a question of whether this is the most sensible strategy.

We don’t need to endorse the view of our old friend Lord Sumption, who is in more trouble this week for mis-construing the obvious and mis-describing the reality.  He argued in a current affairs programme yesterday that the elderly were “less valuable” than the young, elevating simple arithmetical fact that they have fewer years to live into a profoundly unacceptable dismissal of their lives.  And as with others opposing the lockdown regime, he was factually plain wrong in claiming that the restrictions on socialising do not reduce infection across the population.**

The more interesting question is whether the young should be left to last.  The 70-plus is not the most infected section of the population, and therefore not the most likely to infect others.  We  received last week a communication from Shropshire Council indicating that the rate for the elderly in the county is half that of the 20-29 age group.  Nationally the ONS finds a similar distribution, using slightly different age-bands.  On January 2, 3.16% of the 15-24 age group tested positive, with a steady decline across the cohorts to 1.06% for the 70 and over.**

At face, these disparities are not surprising.  The retired do not need to go out to work, and less likely to be found in shopping precincts, bars and all-night raves.  My frail elderly neighbour who has now received his vaccination has been wholly locked down since the end of March, irrespective of the fluctuations in the official rules and advice.  He is absolutely no threat to anyone else.  The same is pretty much true of my household.  Where they have gone out of doors the 70-plus were found by the ONS to be more likely than the 16-29 cohort to answer positively to the question ‘have you avoided physical contact with others when outside the home?’***

Furthermore the young appear to be suffering psychologically more than the old.  The current ONS ‘overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays’ score rises steadily from 5.9% for the 16-29 cohort to 7.3% for those now due to receive their vaccination invitations.  There is an even sharper disparity in the loneliness measure, ranging from 13% to 5% for the same groups.****

So the young are having a tougher time and are more likely to catch and transmit the virus.  Why not vaccinate them first?

The short and irrefutable answer, pace Lord Sumption, lies in the age-specific rates for hospitalisation and death, together with the obvious need to keep fit those caring for the ill and the elderly, and to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed to the cost not only of Covid sufferers but those with any other serious illness.  But there is a price to be paid for this strategy.  Assuming the vaccination roll-out continues as promised, the mortality rates will fall much faster than those for infection. 

It really will be the autumn and not the spring before it will begin to be safe to resume anything like our normal lives.

*, Table 12



*****, Table 7.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Anti-Vax

Edward Jenner

July 7. After half a year of the pandemic, we should be immune to shock at the responses to it.

But this morning there is published a finding which is startling and depressing in equal measure.  A survey conducted by YouGov, an entirely reputable polling organisation, has found that almost one in six British adults will ‘probably’ or ‘definitely’ refuse a coronavirus vaccination when one becomes available.  Another 15% say they are not sure what they will do.*

We expect this kind of anti-science in the United States, where according to the latest research, only a third of the population believe in secular evolution, a century and a half after Origin of Species.**  But Darwin is our man, indeed my man, born and educated in Shrewsbury (his parents, for an unexplained reason, are buried in the churchyard of Montford parish church, just down river from my village and some distance from the town where they lived).  Surely we are beyond so irresponsible a rejection of medical research.

In the popular history of medicine, Edward Jenner lines up with Alexander Fleming as a hero-discoverer of life-saving remedies.  In 1796, as every textbook tells it, he vaccinated James Phipps, the eight-year-old son of his gardener, with cowpox, which gave him immunity to the disfiguring and frequently lethal illness of smallpox.  Crucially Jenner not only applied a remedy which was already being investigated, but conducted a series of tests to prove that it had worked with young Phipps and later triallists.  There then followed the first public legislation in the field, with Vaccination Acts in 1840, 1853 (the first to make the vaccination of children compulsory), 1867 which tightened the regulation, and 1898 which introduced a conscience clause for parents still opposed to the practice.

The last of the 19th century Acts reflected the power of the anti-vaccination movement which had grown up as regulations were introduced.  In the present moment, Leicester is in renewed lockdown, at least in part because of the failure of sections of the population to observe social distancing advice.  Here is the same city in 1885, with up to 100,000 anti-vaccinators marching with banners, a child’s coffin and an effigy of Jenner:  “An escort was formed, preceded by a banner, to escort a young mother and two men, all of whom had resolved to give themselves up to the police and undergo imprisonment in preference to having their children vaccinated…The three were attended by a numerous crowd…three hearty cheers were given for them, which were renewed with increased vigor as they entered the doors of the police cells.”***

The Victorian era was notable not so much for the progress of medical science, which for the most part was more successful at diagnosis than therapeutic intervention, but for the growth of mass literacy, which turned every citizen into a consumer of the printed word.  With newspapers came advertisements for every kind of quack medicine.  With the Penny Post of 1840 came the machinery to distribute products by mail order, using stamps as currency.  The most credulous were not the newly literate farm labourers whom Jenner had treated, but the confident, educated middle classes.  In 1909 the British Medical Association, alarmed at the success of patent medicines, conducted an inquiry into the market:

It is not, however, only the poorer classes of the community who have a weakness for secret remedies and the ministration of quacks; the well-to-do and the highly-placed will often, when not very ill, take a curious pleasure in experimenting with mysterious compounds.  In them, it is perhaps to be traced a hankering to break safely with orthodoxy; they scrupulously obey the law and the Church and Mrs. Grundy, but will have their fling against medicine” (BMA, Secret Remedies (1909), p. vii).

Facebook and other sites, which bear a criminal responsibility for the resistance to orthodox medicine, are merely the inheritors of a long tradition of self-medication weaponised by commercial forces and facilitated by communication systems.  The medical profession itself has not always been as secure a bastion against these pressures as it might wish to be seen.  It took twelve years for The Lancet finally to retract the article it published in 1998 falsely claiming that the MMR vaccine caused autism.

It is, of course, possible that if and when a vaccine is made available, there will be less resistance to it than is now threatened.  History offers scant comfort that this will happen.