Dealing with anti-vaxxers
Invading BBC, ITN and Google. Paul Demarty examines vaccine madness and the limits of coercive action
It has been a busy time for the anti-vaccine crowd.
Protests are getting steadily more raucous, in this country and elsewhere. Back in August, a gang of these unusual suspects - including, inevitably, Piers Corbyn - attempted to storm BBC headquarters, but managed to get the wrong building (nobody seemed to have told them that Television Centre was no longer Auntie’s home). Some have also picketed Google’s campus in Kings Cross, to object to the tech giant’s censorship of anti-vax propaganda; and the headquarters of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which approved the various Covid-19 vaccines for use in this country.
Meanwhile, in the other London - the one in Ontario - Canadian premier Justin Trudeau had gravel thrown at him by a local anti-vax crowd. And in the United States the vaccination question has become one more combustible element in the great dumpster fire of its culture war. The more hysterically the liberal mainstream denounces the vaccine-hesitant, the more suspicious the latter get - whether of unadvertised side effects or of Bill Gates’s mind-control chips. Having given up on persuasion, the liberals are increasingly vulnerable to ‘fake news’ cycles of their own (including a recent, widely-promoted tall tale of Oklahoma hospitals being overrun with cases of backwoods types blinded by ivermectin overdoses).
The intensity of the struggle is hardly any great mystery. Covid vaccines have gone from being (in the anti-vaxxer worldview) a looming threat to a very real one, and patience is running out on the part of official society with those who are non-compliant. Now vaccines are being offered to minors, there is the additional frisson of ‘think of the children’ to reckon with. Though Sajid Javid has retreated on the question of vaccine passports, there are nonetheless key frontline jobs where vaccination is mandatory, and so the sense of a tightening noose. In the States, Joe Biden has decided to mandate vaccinations for all federal employees (admittedly through a ruse that, in theory, offers the alternative of an intensified regime of infection tests).
It would seem to be a case of irrationalism not exactly triumphant, but having a significant impact on the fight against a dangerous disease. At this point, there are simply no compelling scientific reasons to refuse a vaccine dose: merely the fear, uncertainty and doubt from the usual suspects. Yet we should not leave it there - and a look at the longer-term history of vaccine hesitancy is illuminating here.
The first vaccines to be discovered were, essentially, weaker relatives of serious diseases. The word itself comes from Edward Jenner’s discovery that infection with the mild cowpox virus offered protection from the far more serious smallpox disease (‘vaccine’ comes from the Latin word, vaccinus, ‘relating to a cow’). There were, at the time, rather odd arguments against vaccination - that diseases were a punishment from god for sin, and therefore that prevention was a rebuke to the divine. At the same time, there were pretty mundane reasons for worries. Inoculation was not as safe as a modern vaccine shot. When Jenner was plying his trade, the human race had not yet discovered disinfectant; indeed, inoculations long predated any real understanding of the mechanisms of infection (the germ theory was not pioneered until later in the 19th century).
Such practical objections were dealt with over time; so vaccine hesitancy became proportionally more kooky in its inspiration. Attempts in Britain to legally enforce vaccination in the late 19th century led to riots, however; and the general tenor of state initiatives since then has been to leave vaccine sceptics to their own devices, while very insistently making vaccination against common childhood diseases the default option for the vast majority. This approach has, generally, been a great success, culminating in the elimination of Jenner’s old foe, smallpox.
The recent revival in anti-vax sentiment, it should be noted, stems to a great extent from a catastrophic failure of the scientific establishment - eg, the publication in 1998 by The Lancet of a fraudulent study linking the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism. This most august medical research journal was cheerfully taken for a ride by Andrew Wakefield, a doctor and researcher, despite apparent conflicts of interest on his part. At length, the hypothesis of Wakefield et al of a link between inflammatory bowel disease, autism and MMR was debunked; but not before gaining wide traction in society. For the first time in decades, serious measles outbreaks took place in Britain; Tony Blair refused to say whether his infant son would receive the triple jab. At the end of it all, Wakefield was disgraced, but he had given the anti-vaxxers - if you’ll forgive me - a shot in the arm. He emigrated to the US, where he continues his malignant activities to this day.
Those who actually bother to ask vaccine-hesitant Americans what their objections are tend to find practical worries predominant. These things were forced through too quickly, they say: it is too soon to know what the effects might be; the mRNA vaccines are an unproven new technology; and so forth. We then find the more ‘serious’ moral objections - that, for example, some vaccines were developed using material from aborted foetuses. Finally, we find the truly heteroclite conspiracy theories about mass poisonings, microchips and so forth.
Even the latter have their grain of truth, however. Something grim hangs over the whole discussion, especially in the US, in that the bourgeois establishment is in the midst of a crisis of legitimation. That certainly extends to the medical profession and pharmaceutical industry - it is surely only necessary to mention the opioid addiction crisis, wherein manifest corruption between politicians, doctors and big pharma unspooled into a public health disaster. Some have noted the fact - rather embarrassing to the liberal types most likely to take a ‘hawkish’ line on vaccine mandates - that among those groups disproportionately hesitant are African-Americans. It is not clear why that is, but one possible explanation is the history of abuses black Americans have suffered at the hands of medical science - most notoriously the Tuskegee experiments, wherein hundreds of black men were denied treatment for syphilis so researchers could observe the course of the disease.
Age of suspicion
It is, in the end, not the fact that vaccine hesitancy is scientifically baseless, but that it is socially plausible, that leaves liberal opinion with no recourse other than anathematisation and demands for repression in dealing with it.
Effective public health campaigns of this sort rely on consent; and, so far as refuseniks were limited to a few thousand Jehovah’s Witnesses, New Age alternative medicine nuts and suchlike, they were hardly a serious thread to herd immunity to measles and whatnot. Wakefield will be remembered as a scoundrel and a charlatan, but he could hardly have had the impact he did if ours was not, already even then, an age of suspicion. All the more so in the United States, which - during the period between Wakefield’s first papers linking vaccines to bowel disease and the Lancet study - gave us Timothy McVeigh, the X files, countless UFO sightings, the first in the wildly-popular Left behind series of Book of Revelation-themed thrillers, and so on, ad infinitum.
It is important to state that legal enforcement in the cause of wider public health is not wrong in principle. Measures are taken against people who drive on the wrong side of the road, or who read a load of ‘sovereign citizen’ hogwash on the internet and refuse to pay their taxes. In the case of abstention from the fight against a deadly pandemic, the consequences are far more serious; in no wise should coercion be, so to speak, off the table, and nor should the foolish bourgeois prejudice that parents should decide in the stead of their children be taken for granted. The question is not whether it is just, but if it is wise - is it likely to work? The trouble with coercion is that somebody has to do the coercing - and, while the consent of the coerced is hardly required, the consent of others certainly is. We have mentioned the case of riots against vaccine mandates in late 19th century Britain, which effectively succeeded in overturning the law; but the same principle was at work, in a rather more noble way, when Yankee abolitionists in the north-east resisted the incursions of southern slave-catchers in the 1850s.
In that respect some scepticism is in order. The question is not really posed in this country, since the government is, at this point, disinclined to do anything more than hope that, this time, it really is - a booster shot here and there notwithstanding - back to ‘business as usual’. In the States, the divisions are far too deep; and so far as they do map onto liberal/far-right culture war politics, disputes over the vaccine must take on a mutually reinforcing, ultra-hostile character. Federal mandates will confront the federalism of the constitution and the possibilities for Republican obstruction in red states.
In this matter, as in so many others, escape from the pathological antinomies of bourgeois politics is an urgent matter for the left.