[Column] Liberal democracies, protect your people against anti-vaxxers

Posted on : 2021-03-10 17:23 KST Modified on : 2021-03-10 17:23 KST
Timo Fleckenstein
Timo Fleckenstein

By Timo Fleckenstein, associate professor of social policy at the London School of Economics

The pandemic has been wearing people out. Social distancing rules and stringent lock-downs in many countries greatly impacted people’s lives and their well-being. But since the arrival and roll-out of vaccines, the hopes are high that we are entering the pandemic’s end stage. In Europe, the UK presents the most impressive vaccination effort, with more than 22 million people who have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and by the end of July, all adults will have been offered their first dose.

High take-up of jab is critical to the success of vaccination campaigns, which are ultimately our only way back to normal life. The herd immunity threshold for COVID-19 is not easy to establish, as it might be somewhere in the region of 70 to 80 percent. However, besides the supply of vaccinations and the logistical challenges of mass vaccination, governments face the challenge of the anti-vax movement spreading misinformation on social media, especially about alleged side effects of the vaccination without any scientific evidence.

This has, in considerable parts of European populations, undermined the readiness to receive the vaccination. In the UK, about one-quarter of the population, especially among ethnic minorities, expresses strong reservations. This is particularly worrying since ethnic minorities have been disproportionately affected by the virus. The seriousness of the situation was underlined when 94-year-old Queen Elizabeth was asked to share, in a “casual manner,” her experience of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine on national television. In Germany, according to a recent study, about one-third of the population has no intention to get vaccinated. In particular, the so-called “success-oriented” younger generation shows little readiness to get the jab, in addition to social groups that tend to support the populist “Alternative for Germany” party. It’s even worse in France as only 4 in 10 people say that they are willing to get vaccinated. Here, the anti-vax movement has been influential for many years, and commentators argue that the French reservations are an expression of an erosion of trust in the country’s elites. And more generally, it seems that the anti-vax movement effectively exploits strains in the relationship between governments and their people.

While the rebuilding of trust is a long-term project, vaccination campaigns need effective action immediately. Certainly, public campaigns need to fight misinformation on social media. In the UK, acknowledging the limited reach of political leaders in many communities, celebrities from different ethnic groups have been campaigning for vaccination take-up; and greater support should be provided to general practitioners and more generally local community leaders to reach groups that cannot be reached easily.

Social media companies also have a responsibility. There is compelling evidence that those who use social media as sources of information for COVID-19 are more likely to believe in COVID-19 conspiracy theories and to break lock-down rules. However, social media companies have so far had limited success in keeping their platforms free from obvious misinformation, and they are said to generate estimated annual revenue of 750 million pounds (US$1 billion) from the “anti-vax industry.” Pressure on social media companies needs to increase, and if necessary, regulators should intervene.

But how do we deal with the remaining “vaccination gaps”? How do we crate COVID-19-secure environments to allow economies to open up and consumers to go back to pubs, theaters and concerts?

The European Union has already decided to introduce a digital “vaccine passport” that will allow traveling this coming summer. People across the continent are in desperate need of some time away from home, and many countries (especially in Southern Europe) are in dire need of tourists to revive their economies. It remains unclear though how extensively these European vaccine passports will be used. Estonia and Iceland, however, have already introduced vaccine passports that allow not only traveling but also exemptions from quarantine. Outside Europe, Israel is a frontrunner. After recovering from COVID-19 or one week after receiving their second doses of vaccine, Israelis receive a “green passport” that is needed for traveling and social gatherings, for instance, for entering cafes and restaurants.

But vaccine passports are controversial, as the British debate illustrates. Liberal groups have concerns over privacy issues, while others are worried about vaccine passports’ potential to exclude people from essential goods and services, in addition to concerns for those who lack identification.

It is difficult to perceive a scenario without governments decisively leading the way out of the pandemic, as the anti-vax movement is jeopardizing the fight against COVID-19. Liberal democracies need to show the courage to protect their people, who cannot wait to return to “normal” life. Those who are not prepared to work for the common good might need to face restrictions a little bit longer. There is no easy way out of the pandemic. We are all advised to follow each other’s experiences very closely in the final stage of the pandemic.

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles