Don't let distrust of Boris erode public confidence in the Covid vaccine

Don't let distrust of Boris erode public confidence in the Covid vaccine
Comment: Debunking anti-vax conspiracy theories means taking an honest look at the profiteering and incompetence of Boris Johnson's government, too, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
12 Jan, 2021
Boris Johnson visits one of the UK's mass vaccination centres that open this week [Getty]

From the moment it became clear a Covid-19 vaccine was on the horizon, popular worries, criticisms and suspicions about it have increasingly loomed large. 

A recent study shows that one third of people in the UK have been exposed to anti-vaccine conspiracies. Kings' College London and Ipsos Mori research highlighted that theories of this nature have been spreading on social media, and that 40 percent of those who tend to receive their information from online platforms, such as YouTube, were more likely to accept the anti-vaccination arguments. 

Some of the theories in circulation rest on pharmaceutical profiteering, or government surveillance - not necessarily random or particularly conspiratorial ideas. But the problem emerges when these views are connected to the vaccine itself, and lead people to reject crucial healthcare in these difficult times.

It's clear, however, that to change minds, we'll need to put condescending judgment aside and actually engage with these popular worries. Only then, might we understand that these concerns emerge out of real, and valid political issues which need to be addressed.

For example, the director of research group Medicines Law and Policy, Ellen 't Hoen, raised the fact that pharmaceutical companies showed little interest in developing the vaccine until the money started rolling in from governments and donors. It is no secret that huge companies literally profit from the sick and dying around the world.

We have a government that encouraged people to shop and eat out at the very moment that the opposite was so desperately needed

In an increasingly privatised healthcare system, pharmaceutical giants are intensifying the gap between those who can receive life-saving treatments, and those who cannot. The massive difference in price between the different vaccines in circulation, with Pfizer and Moderna selling their jabs at nearly seven and ten times the price of the Oxford/AstraZeneca one, has further driven this fact home. 

When the intentions of those making our vaccines are clear for all to see - that the companies in charge are not driven by saving lives but the price tags they can apply to treatments, is it any surprise that criticism which is sometimes discarded as conspiracy, should exist? 

The issue lies not in identifying the cynical and profit driven nature of the pharmaceutical industry, but in the erroneous idea that this means that the vaccines are therefore ineffective. It's important to re-emphasise for those who are worried, that the rush to develop a treatment in a matter of months stems from the exploding global pandemic, and not something more sinister.

Given the catastrophic impacts of the virus, it has also been thoroughly monitored, researched and trialled. Volunteers lined up for testing very early on, and what is normally a much more drawn out process, garnered mass support in a matter of hours.

Read more: Govt vows to offer Covid-19 vaccine to all adults in UK by autumn

Furthermore, it was built on prior knowledge and strategies that have long been developed by scientists, experts and even governments. In 2017, for example, the international Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) were already developing responses to global pandemic scenarios like today's. Given all this, we should probably be more critical of the length of time it has taken our political leaders to respond to the pandemic.

The issue facing us is therefore how to disentangle genuine and justified distrust of governments and a global system driven by profit, from a refusal to accept crucial vaccines because of it. Doing so is impossible without taking people's concerns seriously. 

The last year four years of Tory rule have exemplified their total disregard for the well-being of most of the populace. Throughout the pandemic, the government has prioritised big business in the name of "saving the economy" while there's been precious little effort to develop effective measures to prevent deaths, protect jobs and ensure the safety of millions. 

The issue facing us is how to disentangle genuine and justified distrust of governments from a refusal to accept crucial vaccines

Let's not forget how Boris Johnson ignored the warnings of the National Union of Teachers over the reopening of schools back in the summer, failed to provide basic protection which turned schools into virus hotspots, and has now issued another national lockdown which means the closure of schools for at least six weeks. 

We have a government that encouraged people to shop and eat out at the very moment that the opposite was so desperately needed. We have a prime minister who has been lying to the nation for so long, that it is no wonder that people do not trust him to deliver a cure in any form. This is a point that has been largely overlooked by those discussing the disinformation surrounding the vaccines. 

People's worries over being monitored are also understandable. 

Indeed, states around the world have capitalised on the pandemic in order to increase surveillance and repression. When tracking technology was being developed, hundreds of tech experts raised their concerns over the undermining of civil liberties.

In the UK, over 170 scientists published
an open letter warning against the government's plans involving NHSX - the digital health wing of the NHS. They were worried about the misuse of this information to spy on people. Similar concerns were raised about the extended special powers which built on years of so-called counter-terrorism policies. 

It is disingenuous - and dangerous - to brush off people's concerns over the vaccines, without engaging with their political roots. It assumes that large sections of society are unintelligent and removed from reality. It is also unhelpful in reinforcing trust. 

Yes, the British government's handling of the pandemic has shown it isn't driven by saving our lives, that it passes policies which do not benefit us, and that they never pass up an opportunity to increase their power, even during a deadly pandemic. 

Refusing the vaccine will not help to address any of these worries

But refusing the vaccine will not help to address any of these worries. Opening discussions on government accountability, organising collective pressure to force a redistribution of public funds based on the needs of the people, and campaigning to protect civil liberties are all ways that we can concretely undermine the current status quo, and even rebuild trust in state-issued treatments.

We need to fight back against a system driven by profit and greed, one that is hell bent on rolling back our freedoms. This vaccine is also crucial for that - so we can return to the streets without endangering the most vulnerable.

By all means, share resources on the science behind the vaccines, but let's also think about how we got here, and why the poorest are being made to suffer the most.

Let's also be clear that the relentless drive for profit not only allowed the virus to spread more rapidly, but also undermined our collective ability to respond effectively, due to the divestment and privatisation of welfare. Only the truth - and the whole of it - will address popular fears and provide an answer to the massive crisis we are living through. Anything less can only be suspect. 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.