Time To Change The Way We Talk About Vaccines
What we got wrong about the vaccines, what we still don’t know…and why we need to keep vaccinating.
It’s now been little over a year since the news broke that Pfizer and Moderna had developed respective vaccines that were well over 90% effective, and had no serious side effects — and they’d done it in less than one year, breaking all speed records for vaccine development.
Coming in the midst of a dark period of infections rising again around the world, the news was the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
Sure, there were still huge lingering questions in the global response to the pandemic, including the ability to produce and distribute these powerful new vaccines worldwide. But on an individual level, we were told quite clearly a year ago: if you get your jabs, you have a very high percentage chance of a COVID-free future.
You can go back and read certain in-depth stories that included crucial caveats to optimism, like the uncertain durability of immune response to the various vaccines. Or the potential ability of new variants to bypass our immune systems. Or that factors like vaccine transportation and storage can also reduce vaccine effectiveness. Or — in short — about that vast space that exists between clinical trials and real-world outcomes. Still, in plenty of articles — like this New York Times piece headlined “New Pfizer Results: Coronavirus Vaccine Is Safe and 95% Effective” — there are scant signs of caution or scientific nuance.
And now, of course, the Delta and Omicron variants have conspired to bring our soaring vaccine expectations back to earth, and countries around the world are again locking down and closing borders. We not only find ourselves back to asking when it will all end — by now we know it’s a rhetorical question for the gods, rather than something the scientists can answer.
But we should also ask why the public was so ill-prepared for the setback. Was there something we misunderstood? Was there something the doctors got wrong? Was the vaccine uber-optimism from public officials and the scientific community the best and only way to maximize the number of people willing to get the jab?
Welp, happy Covidmas.\n\nI'm 3x vaxxed (& flu shot), wear masks, sanitize like a maniac & tested positive. Several members of my family have it too (in different parts of the US). 1 kid has Covid a second time. \n\nWe're grateful to have mild symptoms thanks to but frustrated— Katie Jacobs Stanton (@Katie Jacobs Stanton) 1640116331
Ideology vs. fear
The misfired messaging has left an already fatigued global population now faced with the fact that vaccines alone may not be the silver bullet we were promised — and a no less troubling reality that the question of getting vaccinated or not has acquired tremendous emotional voltage that risks backfiring in the medium and long-term.
The first to blame are no doubt political leaders and demagogues who have slowed vaccine progress, combined with a very vocal minority of ideological anti-vaxxers spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories online. Still, we on the other side of the argument have fallen into a different trap of palming off millions of people as ignorant and selfish fools.
Where I live, in Bulgaria, the least vaccinated country in Europe, hospitals are flooded as some 75% of the population refuse the jab. But talking to people here, I’ve yet to meet anyone who fits the bill of the Trump-supporting, anti-science, anti-vaxxer ranting about freedom and rights. Mostly, the people I talk to are afraid — both of the virus and the vaccines — and they ask legitimate questions, especially over why the virus is still spreading in the most well-vaccinated countries.
In latest @KFF poll of Americans\n\nAsked if they are worried they will *personally* get seriously sick with COVID\n\nVaccinated people are more worried than unvaccinated people\n\nOur messaging on the power of vaccines to protect people from serious illness has gone wrong somewherepic.twitter.com/hWbvOSu41h— Ashish K. Jha, MD, MPH (@Ashish K. Jha, MD, MPH) 1640108049
Rising above demonization
I’m still convinced that vaccination is our best weapon against the virus. The global health crisis and our apparent inability to prognosticate aren’t the products of some government conspiracy or Big Pharma plot (regardless of their billions in profits!), but simply the best that science could do in the face of an aggressive virus in a globalized world. We also know that vaccinations, while not bulletproof, drastically limit both deaths and contagion, with recent data showing that the vaccinated run 10 times lower risk of infection, and 20 times less likely to die once infected.
And yet, we should also see that such virulent and divided public debate goes beyond a simple science vs. delusion schema — depending as it does on factors ranging from religious belief and access to information, to misinformation and a deep-seated distrust in authority, whether in a purported democracy or blatant kleptocracy.
Indeed, while this pandemic has reminded us of both the power and limits of science, there is conclusive historical evidence that collective vitriol and demonizing are the worst possible tools to change anyone’s mind. And as for our leaders, it may be time to start trusting the public's intelligence and provide the fullest picture of that enemy we still can’t quite see.
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