Given that vaccines are among the best methods that medicine has for controlling viral disease it might seem surprising that so many are opposed to their use on a fundamental level. Especially surprising in the midst of a global p(l)andemic.
For those who are polarised by this issue there seems to be a huge gulf of mistrust between the camps. Those who are against vaccination are skeptical of the claims and methods of the establishment but let’s not forget that skepticism is a cornerstone of science.
If we accept that existing vaccines are at least partially effective then we must also acknowledge that deaths and life changing harms have resulted from vaccination. We cannot shy away from this fact. There is a grim calculation here that says if a disease would kill, say, a thousand people, then it may be acceptable if the cure only kills ten and saves 9,990.
Whether or not you agree with this form of utilitarianism we should all acknowledge that pressure from anti-vaccination groups on health agencies has been a driving force in improvements to vaccine safety. We must also acknowledge that we live longer and healthier lives as a direct result of medical science, including vaccination.
Protection of life
There are reasons to be fearful on both sides of the divide, and yet we are united by the intention to protect life and reduce harm, irrespective of whether we are for or against vaccination.
If you can’t imagine why increased surveillance, mandatory injections and restrictions of freedom are threatening, then maybe you should read a dystopian novel or two.
If you don’t think COVID-19 is scary, then try this thought experiment: imagine an airline ‘Coronavirus Air’ that started operating in March. Since then, a plane carrying 180 people has crashed every single hour of every single day – that is the global burden of death that COVID-19 caused in the same period. Now ask yourself ‘would I buy a ticket to Honolulu with Coronavirus Air?’
Rather than demonising each other for wearing facemasks or being concerned about vaccine safety, we should work to understand each other. By standing in opposite corners we only make a difficult 2020 worse, and run the risk of disappearing into our own confirmation biases. Ridicule and fear are our worst enemies when it comes to understanding the hearts and minds of others. What we need is mutual respect and appreciation – and the courage to change our own minds, at least a little bit.
We can hope that safe and efficacious vaccines will be developed, but in the words of bioethicist Alison Bateman-House ‘The success of any medical intervention rests on the trust which people ascribe to it. No one has ever had a 100 per cent perfect vaccine but even if we came up with one it may not be used in the volumes to have the needed public result if people don’t trust it.’
Medical science may put the tools into our hands but it is we, as a society, who must decide how and if they are used.