Opinion: COVID-19 vaccine won’t help if people are afraid to get it

In the movies, it happens overnight. An American doctor hunkers down in a lab with a crate full of monkeys, and by morning, it’s ready: the vaccine that will save the world.

Unfortunately, in a real life pandemic, science moves a little slower. Scratch that – a lot slower.

Vaccines, it turns out, are the product of years of labour, not hours. And, as opposed to a single miracle serum depicted in movies, in the real world of COVID-19, it feels like there are too many vaccines in development to keep track of.

Also in reality: Countries such as Canada (that don’t seem to exist in Hollywood catastrophe movies) can’t rely on the generosity of the United States to develop and administer a life-saving injection to the world in the course of a single day. In real life, good news comes in small doses.

This week, we got some. News emerged Wednesday the Canadian government is negotiating deals with pharmaceutical and biotech companies Pfizer and Moderna to secure millions of doses of their COVID-19 vaccines in the event they are approved for mass use, hopefully in 2021.

In other words, while we are still a long way off from the end of our own COVID-19 movie, we know the federal government is at the very least trying to get us there.

Though she wouldn’t specify how many doses the government will obtain, nor how much money it’s spending to obtain them, Anita Anand, the minister of public services and procurement, stressed at a news conference “these agreements with Moderna and Pfizer are indicative of our aggressive approach to secure access to vaccine candidates now, so that Canadians are at the front of a line when a vaccine becomes available.”

Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains appeared equally optimistic. “Our government firmly believes in the role of science in good decision-making,” he said at the same news conference.

But the question remains: Does the Canadian public believe the same thing? That is, are we firm believers in the role of science in good decision-making, or are we, rather, believers in conspiracy theories we read on Facebook?

There’s another major difference between how pandemics play out in the movies and how they play out in real life. In the movies, people generally can’t wait to get their hands on a vaccine when it arrives.

In a real world pandemic, they’re not quite as eager.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Angus Reid Institute, 46 per cent of Canadians say they would get a COVID-19 vaccination as soon as one becomes available.

However, 32 per cent say that, while they would get one, they would “wait a while first.”

Conversely, 14 per cent are opposed to being vaccinated altogether, and eight per cent aren’t sure where they stand.

According to Angus Reid, “the majority of those who say they will wait to get the vaccine also say they are worried about side effects (76 per cent).”

Some of these concerns are understandable, especially in light of the unprecedented speed with which these vaccines are being developed and tested.

But it’s also likely that a large chunk of this fear is the result of misinformation, namely COVID-19 conspiracy theories that are proving to be very popular online: theories about the dangers of potential vaccines, to the dangers of mask wearing and 5G cellular networks.

Canadians like to mock Americans who believe their president when he straight up lies to them, but we believe a lot of similar bunk in our own right.

A May study from the school of journalism and communication at Carleton University indicated “nearly half of Canadians (46 per cent) believed at least one of four COVID-19 conspiracy theories and myths,” including the discredited theory that the virus was engineered in a Chinese lab, and “regularly rinsing your nose with a saline solution can help protect individuals from infection.”

Another recent study by researchers at McGill University concluded exposure to social media networks is “associated with misperceptions regarding basic facts about COVID-19, while the inverse is true for news media. These misconceptions are in turn associated with lower compliance with social distancing measures.”

What remains to be seen is whether such misconceptions will result in a lower-than-desired COVID-19 vaccination rate when a safe vaccine is widely available.

Government and health officials are fond of saying a vaccine is not a “silver bullet.” If we want to beat this thing, they argue, we must continue to be vigilant by way of physically distancing and wearing masks.

What they often fail to mention, though, is that we also must be vigilant about the kinds of health information we consume and share online.

It’s wonderful that the federal government is a “firm believer in the role of science in good decision-making.” But, if the general public doesn’t share that belief, the outcome of its decisions might not be very good at all.

Emma Teitel is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.


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