THE CONTAGION OF MISINFORMATION

By Mickey Skidmore, AMHSW, ACSW, MACSW

There should no longer be any debate. The COVID pandemic has made its mark all over the world. Despite being more fortunate than many other countries around the world, now it seems unlikely that Australia can avoid the heightened potency of the delta variant. Yet there remains plenty of contention and an abundance of misinformation which is fueling vaccine hesitancy.

Maybe just maybe — and I am spitballing here — the relentless and pervasive efforts by Donald Trump and his Fox News cohorts to question the severity of the coronavirus, scoff at medical guidance on mask-wearing and cast the whole response to — and vaccination for — Covid-19 as an issue of freedom as opposed to one of public health might have something to do with it?

Perhaps there are additional reasons, but it is hard to argue that anti-vax rhetoric has only grown more heated as a result. Unfortunately, Australia was late to the party. In many ways, Australia’s delay in securing a deal with Pfizer, while “unfortunate”, was understandable, because the success in containing Covid-19 had afforded it more time than others.

However, once the amazing and unprecedented efficacy of the mRNA vaccines was established, ordering a mere 10m doses was unconscionable. Instead, Australia planned to make AstraZeneca and the University of Queensland vaccine the workhorses of its rollout. Both brought the valuable option of domestic production at CSL’s Melbourne facility. Time casts those decisions in a poor light.

AstraZeneca has had its own share of well-publicised problems, contributing greatly to inhibiting its use among Australians. And more recently, high ranking officials of the Australian government are denying many allegations reported in the press regarding its “stuffed” negotiations with Pfizer and the overall public consensus of the botched vaccine roll out. Regardless of who you believe (the press or the government) Australia remains almost the worst performing OECD nation on COVID-19 vaccinations, behind countries such as Costa Rica and Latvia.

The confronting reality of the newest wave of COVID in Australia has allowed for considerable time to reflect on the growing numbers of cases resulting in further disruption to our way of life. (What else is there to do in lockdown?). I have come to the conclusion that we are really dealing with and confronted by something even more vexing and problematic than the COVID pandemic — a fundamental lack of consideration. “I think this lockdown is like, some of you can sacrifice everything and others can just go about their day.” I’m not sure when we became so selfish, when the pervasive sense of entitlement, underscored by the driving theme that “the rules don’t apply to me” and manifests in a significant number of people doing whatever they want — regardless of the recommendations, guidelines or rules advanced for the greater public good.

Unfortunately, this is a short-sided view. The numbers now reflect an alarming exacerbation of cases in Australia. Consequently, this means a seemingly endless extension of restrictions and lockdowns and further disruptions to our way of life. It also means the sacrifices of so many have given way to those who have grown weary of the restrictions — to those who question, deny, rebel and defy public health measures; science; and basic common sense.

So let’s come back around to the initial point. And let’s be clear, this is not about an infringement of personal liberty or freedom. Simply put, this is not significantly different than laws requiring the wearing of seat belts or motorcycle helmets. Initially there were those who contested this was governmental over-reach. But today, most people accept (even if there is a part of them that may not like it) that this is a greater good that ultimately makes everyone safer — and saves a significant number of needless deaths. Today it is common place that children must demonstrate documentation of certain vaccinations in order to be admitted to schools. Likewise, many employers have similar requirements. Yet somehow the hesitancy of accepting the COVID vaccines as the fundamental way back to our previous way of life has been highjacked by politicised misrepresentations that only serve to sow confusion and derision.

I do not profess to be an expert on vaccines. But the start of such conversations should acknowledged that there are not many medications that do not have some potential for risks when using them. So to put this into context, consider that the efficacy of the past few years of basic flu shots has been between 20-30%. The strict rigours of researching for COVID vaccines have yielded several options (Pfizer; AstroZeneca; Moderna; Johnson & Johnson and others). All of them have superior efficiency compared to a basic flu shot, with several of them touting 90% or higher. The lowest that I’ve heard is somewhere in the 67% range. And while there have been reports of some rare blood clotting concerns, the prevalence is astronomically low. While it makes sense to have a conversation with your personal physician to determine this for yourself; for me, the risk of contracting COVID is far greater than the potential risks of any of these vaccines.

Consider the following statement:

It is a sad commentary on our times that one political party in America is given a free pass to denigrate the rule of law, defame law enforcement, cheer mobs, excuse rioters, and transform justice into a tool of political vengeance, and persecute, blacklist, cancel and suppress all people and viewpoints with whom or which they disagree.

As a mental health practitioner, I can attest to the previous statement being a classic manifestation of the defence mechanism known as “projection.” It is wildly ironic that the Republican party (in the US) would suggest that the Democrats should be demonised for something they have done in spades — and continue to do unabashedly. While Trump may only be a vehicle, he has engaged in the masterful use of this psychological dynamic to successfully gaslight and corrupt the Executive Branch of the US Government; along with the Department of Justice, various intelligence communities and the entire Republican Party. In part, he has employed this tactic by successfully trafficking white nationalism doctrine and neo-nazi facism to his supporters, successfully radicalising his base with a political jihad that is growing and advancing authoritarian movements across Europe and the world, threatening democracy as we have known it in our lifetime. 

The four years of the Trump presidency was alarming, and the effects continue to echo and are not yet fully realised. For example, this political dynamic has also highjacked and is currently influencing our response to the COVID pandemic. Nobody likes the impacts of the pandemic. The inconveniences of public health measures are only effective when we all buy in to the necessary sacrifices. Framing what should be a scientific-based conversation into a contentious debate about liberty and freedom is an intellectually dishonest argument. The economic argument is short-sided as well, as there is no avoiding the financial impact of a pandemic  regardless of the response. However, if public health priorities are challenged, discounted and pushed aside at every turn, the financial impact will be longer, far greater and more profound than we can imagine.

As it relates to the rising COVID cases in Australia, it seems clear that what should be a public health issue has become fully politicised. Regrettably, this has given rise to something beyond a biological pandemic; and is now a fully-fledged contagion of misinformation that balks at mask wearing; social distancing and fuelled vaccine hesitancy — all to the detriment of us all. Regardless of your views or positions on these issues, in the end the only way we get to return to our normal way of life is for the country to get vaccinated. The longer the misinformation persists, the longer we will endure unpredictable lockdowns and other restrictions that we all detest.