Reckless rhetoric and vaccine reluctance

May 23, 2021

As the world makes some attempts to obtain a sense of normalcy, so that going to a café or a bar isn’t a matter of controversy, this reluctance needs to be confronted

Amid the vaccine rollout across the United States, a CNN host posed a question to Dr Sanjay Gupta, one that shouldn’t have to be asked in a civilised state: “Does [Tucker Carlson] want his viewers to live?” It appears that while some people are astounded by the achievement of the Covid-19 vaccine in such a short-term period, others are turning their purported cynicism and evident fear into fuel for misinformation. This has led to some people enjoying the privilege of saying “the apocalypse is coming” while the rest of the world goes through that same apocalypse.

“Do you know anything about the potential risks? Probably you don’t know much – we assume the risks are negligible,” Carlson said to viewers on May 5, creating a symposium of scepticism that ran off his own “apparent death rate”. He chose to ignore the findings of the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and presented evidence from an unfiltered reporting system as the foundation of his latest batch of conspiracy theories.

Referring to VEARS, Dr Gupta, who serves as associate chief of the neurosurgery service at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, described it as “an open-label system where basically anybody can report an adverse event from the vaccine,” adding that Carlson has used the open reporting system to suggest that 30 people per day are dying from the vaccine.

While Tucker Carlson paints a grim image of the American authorities turning a blind eye to these misgivings of the vaccine and its supposed side effects, Dr Gupta went on to point out that “this is the same reporting system that basically found a one-in-a-million likelihood of someone having an adverse effect from the Johnson & Johnson vaccine,” which did, in turn, lead the CDC to put the distribution of the aforementioned vaccine on hold until it could be investigated.

Dr Gupta seemed frustrated by the way Carlson’s words had caused the public’s embracing of the vaccine to stutter and stop, and for good reason. Carlson, on his ‘news’ show, seemed to end every statement with an open-ended question – the sort meant to imply foul play. He asked why the vaccine had a delayed response, why people who had two shots were still asked to wear a mask and what would happen to tho people who didn’t get the vaccine shots. It gave the impression that Fox News could not afford a decent internet connection, because Carlson could have found responses to his juvenile queries through a quick Google search.

But Carlson revels in furrowing his eyebrows in a false fear from this pandemic. Putting his objections under the flag of freedom and liberties, during his episode on May 10, he talked at length about a debunked, fringe conspiracy theory that Dr Anthony Fauci – Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden – funded a Chinese lab that created the coronavirus and then purposefully released it into the public. Carlson did his best to paint the man leading the United States’ national effort against the pandemic as a sadistic authoritarian who likes “punishing” the country with his “germ hysteria”.

Carlson isn’t the only holdout against the vaccine. Joe Rogan, a popular podcast host, previously argued that young and healthy people did not “need” the vaccine. Radio host Alex Jones, who has been described as “the most prolific conspiracy theorist in contemporary America” by the Southern Poverty Law Centre, claimed to have evidence that anyone taking the vaccine would develop neurological issues within a year and would be dead within ten, as the vaccine was “building plaque in your brain.” It seems that the farther right one’s political leanings, the more crackpot their layman interpretation of the vaccine.

Unfortunately, these words do have an impact. While The New York Times reported that the figure cited by many epidemiologists to achieve herd immunity is 60 to 70 percent of the population, the US is a long way from it. An Axios-Ipsos poll showed that the advantage these conspiracy theorists have is that they don’t need to prove themselves right, they just need to create doubt. According to the poll, while only four percent of people believed that the vaccine was more fatal than the disease itself, about 25 percent of people said they didn’t know which was correct.

Moreover, it can be argued that these words do not originate from a place of fear or ignorance, even if both are available in abundance. One of the central talking points adopted by the far-right has been the fact that a vaccine was made within 10-14 months, while other diseases are still waiting on a safe treatment. They hold Biden or Bill Gates accountable for this, all the while ignoring the fact that it was the removal of bureaucratic health care regulations under the Trump administration that allowed for this acceleration in the first place.

Last year, when the lockdown was new and the virus didn’t have region-specific variants, global healthcare systems were struggling to keep their noses above water. Michael Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organisation’s Health Emergencies Programme, stated that health care systems are “collapsing under the pressure of too many cases.”

In the United States, a patchwork of anti-competitive regulatory policies had exacerbated the problem and limited access to vital care. Fortunately, several states and federal agencies had wisely taken steps to roll back some of these regulations. Speaking on Operation Warp Speed, the director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Centre for Vaccine Research, Dr Paul Duprex, explained during an interview on NBC News that they were able to “compress the timeline” for the development of the vaccine.

Instead of dealing with the developmental process in a linear fashion, he explained, the research centre had run concurrent development, wherein steps A to B were being done at the same time as steps E to F, and so on. The ability to run sequential steps simultaneously depicts nothing more than a high level of efficiency and an axiomatic degree of motivation to return the world to a somewhat normal state.

For the pundits and self-aggrandising soothsayers, one seems to have no choice but to look at their questions and double-talk as a new form of super-spreader for the coronavirus. Fear-mongering has picked up traction and the number of people coming in for their vaccination appointments has dropped. While nearly half of US adults have gotten the first dose of the vaccine, the CDC recently reported a 20 percent decrease in the number of people coming for vaccination in the last week of April, whether their second dose or the first. This reluctance not only prevents herd immunity but also gives the disease more time to mutate and potentially develop resistance to the vaccine itself.

The trouble is not that there aren’t valid fears to be tackled. Certainly, there are unknown factors from the medication which should be raised. As an example, African American hesitation in getting the vaccine, even among medical professionals, originates not from these talk show hosts, but from a history of their race being treated as guinea pigs. Dr Clarissa Dudley, a paediatrician at the Children’s National Hospital, said during an interview with PBS that she did not jump at the chance to get the vaccine, as she is “black first in this country.” The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment undoubtedly has laid the foundation for a cantankerous relationship between African Americans and the US healthcare system.

It is because people like Carlson raise non-starter objections to issues, as opposed to some of the more real hurdles, that makes it harder to reach herd immunity. As the world makes some attempts to obtain a sense of normalcy, so that going to a café or a bar isn’t a matter of controversy, this reluctance needs to be confronted.

Of course, the US is only a part of the puzzle when it comes to dealing with a pandemic, one has to keep in mind that this global epidemic arose, in a way, from affluence. Those that could afford to travel internationally were the ones who popped through infected countries and carried it over with a frightening rate of infection.

Now, while those same affluent people are likely to be working remotely in air-conditioned rooms, the poorer segments of society are the ones dealing with the brunt of the fallout. It is harmful on an intellectual, social, and humanitarian level to buy into false information and hold off on getting the vaccine.

The writer is the author of a short stories anthology, Encounters, and a screenwriter for the film   Parchayee

Reckless rhetoric and vaccine reluctance