One early June morning this summer, I was exiting Trails End Farmers’ Market in London, Ont., with bags in both hands and mask still on my face, when I came across a couple heading to the store. I recognized the man immediately, not because he was an acquaintance – I had never seen him before. But the T-shirt he was wearing revealed who he was.
“Good morning,” I offered. His reply: “Those masks are a hoax.”
“No, they aren’t,” I said. “They help save lives.”
“You are a communist,” he answered.
The absurdity was laughable. Considering I left my home country years ago precisely because of the repression of an authoritarian regime, the situation exposed the full extent of this gentleman’s ignorance. But not all mask and vaccine deniers are rock and insult throwers.
This month, a Western University professor of ethics claimed that coercing someone to take a vaccine is unethical. No one should be forced to endure the risks of “an experimental procedure,” the professor claimed. This, of course, ignores more than 50,000 peer-reviewed scientific publications and the approval of health agencies across the globe. The prof, of course, did not address the ethics of propagating potentially deadly misinformation.
Any drug, under certain circumstances, could cause adverse effects. Take too much vitamin C, for example, and you can contract anything from heartburn to kidney stones, according to the Mayo Clinic. Some psychiatric drugs could lead to cardiac effects or death.
Vaccines are different. They provide long-term protection with just one or a few doses. They are highly specific and targeted – making them much safer than other drugs. A hardcore fact is that vaccines have prevented 2.5 million deaths per year, according to a 2013 report of the World Health Organization. Occasionally, however, a single fraudulent study can shed a dark veil on an otherwise life-saving technology. Most notorious is the setback of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR) following a 1998 study by Andrew Wakefield, a British gastroenterologist, suggesting an association between the vaccine and autism. Since then, hundreds of studies have dismantled the fallacy, including a recent Danish trial that included more than half a million children. But the harm was done.
Wakefield’s publication fueled the conspiracy story of those who distrust science. Even if extensively disproved, why do some people believe in those myths? Perhaps, as Professor Noah Harari sums it up, “because those stories build their personal identity.”
Political figures, celebrities, medical professionals and religious leaders have urged people to get vaccinated, but for some, it hasn’t been words but rather measures, such as the vaccine passport, that have prompted them to roll their sleeves up.
A few might never do it. Last month, 80 per cent of new COVID-19 cases were among the unvaccinated. Tragically, as with the Spanish Flu and previous plagues, those who choose not to vaccinate or isolate will either develop immunity, serious and potentially long-lasting illness or die from viral infection.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), unvaccinated people are 11 times more likely to die of COVID-19. A ratio that might escalate with the rise of SARS-CoV-2 variants since the level of antibodies generated by the vaccines – several-fold higher than that of a viral infection, whether it is asymptomatic or not – not only elicits cross-variant neutralizing responses but also boost the immune response to new infections. Even if herd immunity is far away or unachievable according to the latest reports, vaccines do considerably reduce the probabilities of hospitalization and death.
This week, we voted. This is a privilege I did not have in my natal country, where wearing a political T-shirt can get you incarcerated. As controversial as this untimely election has been and as thorny the issues at stake are, I was glad to see the main parties concur on one thing – unless you have a sound medical reason, get vaccinated.