Informed health policy needs to understand why ‘vaccine scepticism’ is rising
The reasons for distrust of governments’ responses to the pandemic cannot be put down solely to plain ignorance or wild conspiracies. KEVIN OVENDEN explains why a Marxist approach can assist our thinking
SCEPTICISM in Western countries about taking some future coronavirus vaccine is growing even as the pandemic advances.
It is way beyond a minority fringe of “anti-vaxxers” opposed to all inoculation.
Public health professionals warn it cannot be answered just by shouting “stupid” at millions more people.
Academics distinguish this “vaccine hesitancy” from the far smaller number of anti-vaccination zealots, whose pernicious online activity increased under lockdown.
The percentage of US adults who said they would take a coronavirus vaccine, should one be developed, dropped from 55 per cent in May to 41 per cent in July.
A properly scientific approach to understanding why and to informing social and health policy in response is welcome.
That stands in contrast to a liberal-elitist disdain that typically halts its invocation to trust the experts and the science at just the point when a scientific method is needed to grasp why levels of trust are sinking, or when it is applied to how corporations and governments get to judge what is considered “scientific.”
Society is not requiring of scientific investigation. It simply is — comprising educated people and the ignorant. And we are the educated.
But the reasons for distrust of governments’ responses to the pandemic cannot be put down solely to plain ignorance or wild conspiracies (that this is all a hoax).
The efforts by committed public health experts to deal with the problem raise questions that the socialist left has good answers to, practically and politically.
It seems one driver of vaccine hesitancy is popular awareness of the vast profits the pharmaceutical companies may make. Transnational rivals have already been given billions from various states’ treasuries.
“Operation Warp Speed” in the US has funded favoured drugs giants to begin commercial manufacture of their vaccine candidates before full clinical trials have been completed.
Political commentators openly speculate how it may prove an electoral game-changer if the Trump administration can get out something — anything? — by November. An October surprise.
Without endorsing an anti-vaccine message, concerns about reckless corporate profiteering and decisions made for political not public interest are far from groundless.
That is what capitalist corporations and governments do all the time, masked in systematic lying. It is an open question as to the extent to which that might override the need to been seen to, or even have a genuine desire to, stop this disease killing millions.
But is it really irrational to think that those core interests and impulsions remain engaged?
The same is true for the understandable concern, or rather observation, that vaccine development and any future production are tied up with geopolitical antagonisms.
The Chinese, Russian, US, German, British and other research projects are all widely seen as driven by the partial interests of competing state actors, not by global wellbeing.
There is little point in organs of the liberal intelligentsia complaining about this.
Their common reaction to the announcement of a Russian potential vaccine was overdetermined by visceral opposition to the Putin government.
That is not to say that the Russian state-pharma complex has produced an effective vaccine. It is just that there has been little rational discussion about it — only politicised incredulity that such a thing is even possible, combined with insinuation that Russian authorities must be trying to experiment on their population.
And China? Dangerously rampant Sinophobia is reaching levels that would be denounced as a conspiracy theory if they were applied to a Western liberal democracy.
There should be little surprise when a lot of people then say: well, the billionaire interests in my country are not so different from those in Russia. If Putin is capable of this, so are Trump, Johnson, Modi, Macron…
As for big pharma: Novartis engaged in colossal bribery of Greek politicians and health administrators to get its drugs sold preferentially.
Why should the average Greek citizen trust Novartis’s integrity on coronavirus? Or GSK’s, Johnson & Johnson’s and the rest?
If you are told to distrust a putative Chinese vaccine as bogus and instead patriotically to take something developed in Britain, then who is to vouch for that one being safe? The Johnson government with its corrupt ties to a plethora of private interests? Dominic “eye-test” Cummings?
False and irrational conspiracies might be constructed upon these questions. But the questions themselves are neither irrational nor conspiracist.
And they combine a popular anger and political alienation across the advanced capitalist world in the last decade with a good sense questioning of a system that bailed out the bankers and billionaires rather than jailing them in 2008 — and is doing so again.
Even before the pandemic and economic slump this year’s international Edelman survey found collapsing trust across industrialised countries in major institutions — governments, the media, big business and corporate NGOs.
“We are living in a trust paradox,” said company chief Richard Edelman. “Since we began measuring trust 20 years ago, economic growth has fostered rising trust … [but] national income inequality is now the more important factor … long-held assumptions about hard work leading to upward mobility are now invalid.”
Whether or not that was ever a paradox, it has evaporated now in a slump that is seeing astronomical sums still funnelled upwards, especially into the hands of big tech on the expectation that data about all of us is the new oil rush.
Is it stupid in those circumstances to think that somehow a fabulously wealthy elite is profiting from our suffering, unmoored from democratic accountability and shrouded in secrecy?
At the same time their political representatives send out increasingly contradictory messages showing they are not in control, and refuse to take responsibility.
National health administrators are having to deal with the consequences of this upon mass thinking and behaviour, at least when they do advocate rational public health measures despite their political masters.
Yet their most sincere efforts are stymied by the political framework in which they must operate.
Imagine the impact on vaccine hesitancy were big pharma banned from profiting from a vaccine.
Or if a major state actor openly broke from the geopolitical competition on this issue and said it was looking to co-operation without selfish gain to provide a safe vaccine to everyone on the planet.
Or if health systems everywhere were collectivised, with the profit motive removed — as opposed to advancing, as it is in the NHS under the Tories.
What if you had governments that were more widely believed to be acting for the general good, nationally and internationally?
That is a long way short of socialism. It is still a tall order for this system.
We are seeing expressed a fundamental contradiction between the organisation and functioning of late capitalism as against its capacity to respond effectively to a global health crisis — even if it wants to.
Socialists have a lot to say about that. Not just generally. The left has a role in pressing rational solutions, even in the absence of a rational social and economic system — thus posing the need for one.
A vaccine and treatments for the people, not for profit; for humanity, not for any national selfish interest. Not a slogan, rather an approach to effective popular action to impose rationality, in so far as we can, upon the capitalist corporations and governments.
In so doing, it is provides the basic connection to mass, well-grounded scepticism and also a convincing answer where that gives way, usually out of a sense of powerlessness, to irrational responses to the barbarities of an irrational system.
This entails refusing to be limited to the confected opposition between irrational anti-sciencism on the one hand, and naive echoing of the claims of capitalist corporations, governments and their preferred experts on the other. That has been a damaging dilemma in which too much of the left has been caught since at least the 2016 EU referendum.
Anecdotally, health worker friends say that those known to be not just sceptical of but antagonistic to profiteering in the service and to the big drug companies are more likely to be listened to by patients for whom a lack of control and myriad social absurdities have led to forming a false picture and beliefs about medicine itself.
It is the left’s grounded and systematic criticism of this chaotically failing order that enables us to provide answers ranging to how to provide convincing public health advice.
That’s done on the basis of trying to overturn this irrational system, not being outriders for it.
It does something else: to pose a freeing of scientific inquiry and advance from capitalist commercial and political interests. Not veneration of the appointed expert, but of expertise that necessarily clashes with appointment via a madhouse system.
Science — in its widest sense — socially freed. Socialism applied scientifically. There is a term for that. Marxism — both optimistically utopian, and scientific.
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