This is the sixth and final part of Paula Jardine’s investigation into the planning behind ensuring vaccine acceptance and countering vaccine ‘hesitancy’. You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here and Part 5 here.
COVID-19 vaccines were authorised for emergency use to prevent Covid infection. The ‘vaccine confidence’ people found the word ‘protection’ resonated more with the public than ‘prevention’; accordingly the vaccines were promoted as protecting the community from hospitalisation and death. People who could authentically ‘sell gratitude’ for getting on board with the Covid campaigns for masking or accepting vaccines, the trusted health professionals, social influencers, and ‘people like me’ were deployed to persuade the public. But any talk of a moral obligation to accept the vaccines was to be avoided as they thought it invoked strong negative responses.
Dr Heidi Larson, who set up the ‘Vaccine Confidence Project’ at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, admitted there are challenges, especially when it comes to defining what is misinformation. ‘Social media users may pose questions or instil doubt without saying something that is explicitly false. If someone asks “Do you really know what’s in a vaccine?” we cannot legally or ethically remove it,’ she said. ‘Getting the balance right between freedom of expression, privacy and public health is a major challenge. The erosion of public trust is part of a wider distrust of authorities, experts and industries, but vaccine advocates could lead the way in rebuilding resilience.’
Such reservations have not stopped efforts to police information shared on social media. The authoritarian reflex is to monitor and censor dissent. In 2018, the EU introduced a code of practice on disinformation, and committed to supporting what it called an independent network of fact-checkers, stimulating quality journalism and promoting media literacy. Facebook, Google and Twitter agreed to collaborate by monitoring ‘misinformation’ to ‘ensure the protection of European values and security’.
In June 2021 with the Covid vaccine programme six months old, Věra Jourová, the EU’s vice president for values and transparency, said in a statement: ‘We decided to extend this programme, because the amount of dangerous lies continues to flood our information space and because it will inform the creation of the new generation Code against disinformation.’
To borrow the words of the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the authorities are reaching the point where ‘unless you hear it from us it’s not the truth’.
Last August BBC Media Action, generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, began a campaign to counter ‘disinformation’ on Covid-19 vaccines, advancing the compromised World Health Organisation (WHO) as the only viable authority on this topic. It is little wonder that the fact checkers themselves began to come under scrutiny, for example by the Critic.
The vaccine safety net approach of counterbalancing was no longer considered sufficient. ‘Inoculation theory’, an idea from the field of public relations, was deployed: ‘Inoculation involves debunking false claims before people encounter them. Then, their first encoding of misinformation is strongly tied with the notion that it is false, equipping people with arguments that can be used to refute and dismiss it. The two main elements of inoculation are explicit warnings that there are attempts to mislead people and refutations of misinformation.’
Dr Emily Brunson, an anthropologist who studies vaccine confidence issues, said: ‘By exposing people to a message that counters your argument and then refuting it, you can help people become more resilient to harmful or inaccurate messaging they may hear later. And just as vaccines only work when they’re administered before someone is exposed to the disease, inoculation theory works when your message is heard first.’
There’s an old-fashioned name for inoculation theory. It is indoctrination. Children, whose minds are the most malleable, are becoming the target. In 2014, the WHO Sage working group laid some of the blame for vaccine hesitancy on the education system saying, ‘Historically, children have not been systematically educated in schools about vaccines, resulting in some in the adult population (i.e. parents and adults) who do not appreciate their benefits to health and societal value for their children and for themselves.‘ Larson agrees: ‘We need to do a better job in schools, helping children to understand essential concepts about how immune systems work to fight disease and how vaccines help build our body’s own protection against infection,’
With the Covid vaccines, applying ‘social norms’ has become part of the persuasion playbook. Lisa Fazio, a psychologist who participated in the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) Covid communications expert group, said: ‘It’s useful to find the influencers and get them to change their mind, which can have big downstream effects. So, for example, if you were working in schools, you would target the kids who have the most connections with other kids and have them be the ones implementing change. Identifying those influencers is going to have a bigger effect than just random people.’
If the Covid vaccine campaign exposes anything 18 months in, with some people having received fourth and even fifth doses, as any protection conferred by the hastily developed vaccines is short-lived, it’s that the idea that vaccines can be used to eradicate diseases is a pipe dream. It demonstrates too that the War on Microbes persists and that, with Covid, the opportunity for a further coercive tool to encourage uptake – the vaccination pass – can be added to its arsenal.
Today the EU is leading the world on the development of these digital certificates. According to Ursula von der Leyen, ‘the development of a vaccine certificate within Europe helps ensure the functioning of the single market, as well as enable Europeans to move freely for work or tourism.‘
If these certificates achieve permanence, they will remove any remnant of choice over vaccination. The future won’t be Mahler’s holistic vision of health, instead it threatens to be one of being endlessly and needlessly medicated with vaccines, the ultimate fulfilment of Grant’s vision of universal vaccination. Dystopia for the greater good.