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Paul Vallely: Vaccine sceptics need to be won over

24 July 2020

Many are taken in by conspiracy theories, says Paul Vallely


AT LAST, there is some good news about Covid-19. Oxford University’s vaccine seems safe and has been proved to make antibodies and T-cells that can fight the coronavirus. Of course, there are the usual caveats that success in the laboratory does not always translate to effective protection in the real world. And it may well not be ready before colder weather returns and we get a second spike. But there is now reason to be hopeful.

So, it was rather alarming to read the YouGov opinion poll in which one in six of the respondents said that they would definitely or probably say “no” to a vaccine. A similar number were “unsure”. That means that one third of the population might decline it — which would take us below the 70-per-cent figure thought necessary for herd immunity.

The problem is not confined to the UK. Polls in the United States suggest that one third of people are reluctant to get vaccinated. In Germany, those open to an anti-Covid vaccination have fallen from 79 per cent in April to just 64 per cent today. Commentators there are attributing this to the rise of the anti-vax movement: a ragbag coalition of wellness gurus, eccentric homeopaths, vegan chefs, hippie parents, and right-wing conspiracy theorists. Between them, they blame the virus on anything from 5G mobile phone-masts to a plot by Bill Gates to implant a tracking device inside everyone via the vaccine.

It is easy to dismiss all this as alarmist minority nonsense. But an anti-vax video, Plandemic, which suggests that the political and business elite devised the virus and then the vaccines to make huge profits and control people, has been viewed more than eight million times on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Huge numbers of people find comfort in conspiracy.

At the root of all this is not a growth in scientific scepticism so much as a crisis of confidence in authority. Most research into the anti-vaccination movement suggests that the problem is not lack of knowledge so much as lack of trust. Governments in the UK and the US have exacerbated this problem with their incompetence, confused messaging, and contradictory advice — not to mention the contemptuous Cummings outing to Barnard Castle (News, 29 May). But the German government has handled the crisis with far greater competence, and yet the problem is surfacing there, too.

Rebuilding trust, in part, requires greater transparency. If the people are to trust the Government, the Government must be seen to trust the people. But the real antidote to vaccine intransigence is not to bash anti-vaxers around the head with more science. All the research shows that that is actually counter-productive, thanks to what psychologists call “assimilation bias”: the human tendency to interpret all new information in the light of the positions that we already hold.

Minds are changed not by facts from authority figures, but by information that comes from those whom we most trust. In the modern world, such figures are most commonly Facebook friends and Instagram interlocutors. They may be low on scientific expertise, but they are high on trust. Astute nudging through social media may prove the way out of the dilemma in which the virus of fake news is as grim an enemy as the coronavirus.

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