Launch of the vaccination campaign for staff of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) at the MINUSMA clinic. Since the beginning of the vaccination campaign, MINUSMA staff have been mobilizing massively to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

The refusal by so many to vaccinate is not only endangering lives but also subverting global efforts to turn the pandemic around. As the World Health Organization, GAVI, UNICEF and a host of other medical institutions constantly remind us, the only way to reduce infections and – it is hoped – bring an end to the strangulating hold that COVID-19 commands over our lives and economies is to vaccinate the overwhelming majority – over 90 per cent if possible – of the Earth’s population. Worldwide, over 5.2 million people have already died from amongst 266 million cases. Furthermore, many are suffering from long-term effects.

According to WHO and other health organizations, only 55.2 per cent of the world population has received at least one jab, while in low-income countries, particularly in Africa, the figure stands at barely 6.3 per cent. Overall, 8.24 billion doses have been administered globally with current vaccination rates now encouragingly rising to nearly 34 million a day. But WHO said it feared richer countries, which have more than enough vaccines, would hoard available doses to the detriment of poorer ones as they rolled out third (booster) shots.This would only hinder progress in curtailong the pandemic.

Medical researchers are grappling with the new coronavirus variant Omicron, whose effects and contagion still have to be properly verified. Yet as they point out, even if the efficacy of most vaccines prove less resilient against this new variant, they still prove one’s best bet for survival. Even with the new variant, other forms, such as Delta, are expected to remain prevalent.

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Health officials add that regardless of the type of vaccine, “the evidence is overwhelming that no matter which one you take, (they) offer life-saving protection against a disease that has killed millions. The pandemic is far from over, and vaccinations are our best bet of staying safe.” Most victims (at least 7 or 8 in 10) now dying or ending up in hospital in countries ranging from the United States to the Netherlands are people who have not been vaccinated. More and more young people are also being affected. Tales abound of dying patients, including once vociferous anti-vaxxers, lamenting that they should have listened.

Anti-vaxxers and poor rollouts: the main reasons why the pandemic continues

Yet combatting COVID-19 successfully largely depends on two main factors. The first is how to persuade those who still refuse to be vaccinated to change their minds. The second is to ensure that more vaccines are made available in the developing world. While inoculation campaigns through COVAX, the international support programme, are stepping up in countries such as Kenya and Botswana, only once the overwhelming majority of populations are inoculated can lives and economies, including tourism, return more to a new but sustainable normal.

The reasons behind the non-compliance of so many anti-vaxxers are based on diverse issues such as personal rights, fear of inoculations, complacency, ignorance, the belief that leading a healthy life suffices, a lack of trust in government information or persistence in acceding to highly bizarre, off-the-edge conspiracy theories. Widescale disinformation perpetuated in social media, often with completely unfounded even ludicrous theories, is also heavily responsible. While many undecided are finally volunteering to take the jabs, there remains a significant percentage (10-40 per cent depending on the country) who continue to refuse.

This is now prompting governments such as Austria, France and Germany to move toward more mandatory approaches or lockdown curbs such as fines, non-access to cafes, restaurants, shops and entertainment, or even to take public transport, to ensure that the bulk of citizens will finally comply as a means of protecting the common good. The continued refusal of many, however, is prompting social divisions amongst friends and families. Many, particularly now at Christmas time, refuse to mingle with those who will not get jabbed, including fellow workers or service providers, such as electricians and plumbers.

Who are the anti-vaxxers?

Despite all the informed science underlining the need to not only vaccinate, but to continue with appropriate counter-measures, the refuseniks represent a strange array of often contradictory bedfellows.

These range from right-wing activists in the United States and Switzerland to left-wing critics in the European Union arguing that governments are infringing on their rights. Republican governors, notably in Texas and Florida, are putting their populations at ever greater risk by steadfastly refusing to implement basic measures, including the wearing of masks in public spaces, while cowbell-toting Alpine traditionalists march through the streets of Swiss cities proclaiming their right to liberty. Anti-vaccination demonstrators persist in countries such as Germany, Netherlands, France and Austria where protesters refuse to consider that their actions are enabling the virus to persist – and to kill. Some have even taken to wearing Nazi style yellow Stars of David, perceived by many as an insult to the millions of Jews who suffered under the Nazis.  

“People who refuse to be vaccinated are incredibly selfish, only thinking of themselves,” said Dr. Pierre H., a retired physician near Lyon who has worked for more than 30 years in rural France and is now volunteering to step up his country’s vaccination efforts. “Some are understandably afraid or ignorant, so I try and make them understand that they have a responsibility and that people are dying or on ventilators because of them. Hospital beds are once again being filled up preventing patients with other illnesses to receive treatment. Non-vaccination is not a human right. We have to consider the common good.”

Countering pandemics: Vaccination technology as opposed to emotional contagion

Pandemics and vaccinations are nothing new. In 1918, when the Spanish influenza was at its peak, people understood that something needed to be done. An estimated over 500 million were infected resulting in between 50 million and 100 million deaths, roughly three per cent of the world population at the time. More than a century later, scientific advances are ensuring that massive outbreaks of the flu, measles, diphtheria and rubella remain limited. Polio, for example, has been eradicated worldwide except for Afghanistan and Pakistan primarily because of opposition by extremist Islamists. Smallpox was finally wiped out in 1980 through consistent global inoculation campaigns.

And yet, many people still refuse to recognize the importance of vaccines. Several acquaintances of this writer, all well-educated and supposedly informed, persist in their beliefs that vaccines are dangerous. Two of them consistently refused to allow their children to receive jabs against diseases such as meningitis to the point of falsifying documents for schools. This refusal has led to severe measles and other outbreaks, primarily amongst children who were not protected, but also threatening the well-being of others.

As Dr. Heidi Larson of The Vaccine Confidence Project already warned in 2018, the next major outbreak, such as influenza, would not be due to a lack of protective technologies, but rather to digitally enabled “emotional contagion” that could “erode trust in vaccines so much as to render them moot”. The deluge of conflicting information, misinformation and manipulated information on social media, she noted, should be recognized as a “global public health threat”.

This is precisely what has happened with Covid-19. Until trusted information is made more consistently available – and believable – there will always be a significant number of people who will consistently refuse to be vaccinated. Such attitudes, however, will probably convince more and more governments to make vaccinations mandatory, not an approach that the WHO recommends, but one which may prove to be the only viable solution.

Global Insights editor Edward Girardet is a foreign correspondent and author with over 40 years of experience reporting wars, humanitarian crises, and development worldwide.

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