As the coronavirus vaccine rollout progresses worldwide with varying degrees of urgency, there is a troubling strain of messaging emerging following reports of possible side effects, and of differing efficacy between vaccine types: Shut up and take your medicine. This certainly fits in with the authoritarian messaging style of politicians and bureaucrats drunk on their newfound sense of power, but it is an approach that is wholly counterproductive in achieving widespread citizen buy-in towards the continued fight against COVID-19.
If politicians and their public health mandarins want to ask the public “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” they may very well not like the answer they receive. Rather than simply issue edicts from on high, officials must try a new tack of being open and level with the public, lest they be tuned out entirely.
To be sure, the speed with which coronavirus vaccines have been developed under the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed is a credit to all involved. As is the remarkable efficacy of most of the vaccines, which is nothing short of a modern medical marvel.
Unsurprisingly for vaccines developed in such a short span — or for any pharmaceutical even in normal times — there have been reports of serious side effects after receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine. In Japan, 1 in 5,000 health care workers have experienced anaphylaxis after receiving their shot, according to the country’s national broadcaster. Following reports of severe blood clots in otherwise healthy individuals, Germany, France, Italy, and other European countries temporarily halted the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine pending further investigation.
Now, these side effects are not necessarily cause to simply ditch the AstraZeneca vaccine entirely, but under normal circumstances, such reports would be cause for further investigation and a pause on the drug’s use, as seen in several European jurisdictions. “Act first, think later” has led to enough questionable COVID-related policies without adding vaccines to the mix.
Public health authorities, however, are choosing a baffling course of damn-the-torpedoes, full-speed-ahead. After a year of crushing lockdowns and restrictions with zero urgency to reopen, we are now told there is not a moment to spare by investigating the AstraZeneca vaccine. “People should still go and get their COVID-19 vaccine when asked to do so,” says Britain’s drug regulator. The vaccine is likely entirely safe, but its risks must be fully explained, rather than give the public the “just trust us” brush-off.
Indeed, as Germany’s expert vaccine panel recommends restricting the AstraZeneca vaccine for those under 60, the European Medicines Agency hand-waves away concerns and says there is “no evidence” for such a move. That is, until an EMA official this week — finally — conceded a causal link, however small, between the AstraZeneca shot and blood clots.
Compounding the issue is the differing efficacy between available vaccines, notably the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine being 66% effective versus its two-shot competitors that clock in at over 90% effectiveness, raising concerns over receiving an “inferior” vaccine. Indeed, the city of Detroit rejected a shipment of 6,200 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. “Moderna and Pfizer are the best. And I am going to do everything I can to make sure the residents of the city of Detroit get the best,” said Detroit mayor Mike Duggan.
But again, messaging has fallen short from public health officials. Sure, government officials and high-income residents get the top-shelf vaccines, but everyone else — low-income and heavily minority areas — can quit complaining and get whatever vaccine is offered. “The best vaccine is the one you can get the soonest,” said health officials in California, who, one assumes, know that people can tell the difference between 66% and 95% effective.
All of which dovetails with perhaps the greatest failing in messaging regarding vaccines from officials: get your shot and … nothing changes. You will still have to mask up and avoid gatherings and live by the whims of government diktats. A return to normal? Fat chance.
It is indeed an inexcusable approach that all but ensures that a not-insignificant portion of the population remains vaccine-hesitant. It speaks to both the unwillingness of public health bureaucrats not wishing to cede their newfound importance and influence, but also to the paternalistic contempt in which they hold the public.
There was an obvious message the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could have taken: It is hard to track who has had their shots, and many are still waiting, so please continue to wear masks and maintain distancing as a social courtesy. Instead, officials chose continue their unending doom-and-gloom messaging and issue edicts we are expected to follow without question.
It is part of a troubling pattern in the messaging from the likes of Dr. Anthony Fauci; a mixture of noble lies and petty authoritarianism. Don’t wear masks, we were told by Fauci and the surgeon general, only for it to later be conceded by Fauci himself that this was a deliberate lie to prevent a run on PPE for health care workers. Recall, too, Fauci noting that herd immunity targets are simply what his “gut feeling” tells him the public is “ready to hear”.
Asked last week about how Texas could see a significant drop in case numbers after ignoring CDC guidance with a widespread reopening, Fauci could only say to “wait a few weeks”; disregarding that Texas relaxed its restrictions nearly a month ago. Iowa’s was rescinded two months ago.
It is an approach that misapprehends the American public as composed entirely of frightened middle-class young urban professionals happy to lap up the latest government edict promising them the illusion of safety, not unlike what was seen in the post-9/11 era. Continue to spit on the American people’s cupcake and tell them it’s frosting, however, and don’t be surprised when citizens tune out public health officials entirely, especially as warmer weather approaches.
Allan Richarz is a lawyer and writer who splits time between Toronto and Tokyo. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Hill, CityLab, New York Daily News, New York Post, CBC, Globe and Mail, National Post, Christian Science Monitor and Atlas Obscura.