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After the Bell: Anti-vaxxers still shouting into the void

After the Bell: Anti-vaxxers still shouting into the void
(Photo Illustration: Scott Barbour / Getty Images)

That anti-vaxxers are still going on about it says far more about them than it does about pro-vaxxers. Anti-vaxxers are arguing in a vacuum; nobody cares any more.

The internet is unquestionably the most extraordinary and impressive invention of our time. Some influential writers consider the internet to be the greatest invention of humankind, and suggest that everything people have invented up till now, including the invention of writing, has led us to the internet.

And yet, there is also an argument that the internet, in its myriad forms, is deforming society, decreasing trust in institutions and warping politics around the world. Which is more correct?

Well, in support of the latter argument, I give you Jay Naidoo, former Cabinet minister and die-hard anti-vaxxer. 

I’m slightly picking on Naidoo – there are lots of anti-vaxxers out there, but you know, I’ve just had it. For most of us, Covid is a distant and horrible memory, and yet he is still going on about vaccinating.

Every second post and repost to his 200,000-plus followers on X, as recently as a few weeks ago, is something from some or other attention-seeking nitwit with limited knowledge about the Covid vaccine. 

And here is the irony: Naidoo is a caring, thoughtful, smart person. When I was a parliamentary reporter way back when, I bumped into him often when he was a minister in Nelson Mandela’s Cabinet. He was an open, considerate, solicitous minister, and in many ways smarter and more accomplished by a long shot than a lot of his peers.

Yet now, his approach is transparently like so many anti-vaxxers out there; the application of scientific rationality is seen as a kind of evil institutional censorship and oppression, which he and his brave cohorts are heroically trying to face down.

In Naidoo’s world, he is the victim, and those encouraging vaccination are the manipulative, lying, tyrannical despots. He tends to cling to snippets of truth by pseudo-scientists, and “questions” things because, you know, he is just a humble participant in the cosmos.

Well, here is the truth: the debate is long past. 

That anti-vaxxers are still going on about it says far more about them than it does about pro-vaxxers. Anti-vaxxers are arguing in a vacuum; nobody cares any more.

For those who are interested, the facts can be summarised in a sentence: vaccinations, like many other medical treatments, potentially have side effects that can be harmful. 

Calculated risk

The responsibility of science is to calculate the risk – is the risk of the side effects greater than the risk of the disease? In the case of Covid, the answer to that question is so obvious; the vast majority of the healthcare community around the globe recommended administering the vaccines. 

I honestly don’t mind Naidoo’s decision to question the application of vaccines, their efficacy, the systems used, and all the other now hoary debates we had a few years back. 

I don’t mind the touchy-feely poems he keeps publishing about the evils of Western thought and the sacred geometry of the world. 

What I do mind is his inability to add. I mean, simply add. This is not deep theoretical mathematics. It’s your basic, school version of maths. 

In late 2021, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined 600,000 cases and found that the unvaccinated were about 11 times more likely to die of the disease and 10 times more likely to be hospitalised with the disease.

So keep that in mind: if you were not vaccinated at the height of the most virulent form of the disease, the likelihood of your death was over 10 times that of someone who’d had a jab. 

But there were side effects; many trivial, but some serious. The three main ones were thrombosis, myocarditis and pericarditis. So what proportion of people who took the Covid vaccine got myocarditis, for example? The answer is 64.9 per 100,000, ie, infinitesimal. Myocarditis is treatable and rarely results in death – do you know what increases your chances of getting it? Contracting Covid, of course.

South African figures

In SA, the numbers look roughly like this. Overall, the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority reports that 38,342,910 cumulative doses of Covid vaccine have been administered. There were 234 reports of deaths: every single one is under investigation. Exactly 176 of those were found to be coincidental; in 44 cases, information was lacking; 10 cases were indeterminate; in three cases, death was linked to taking the vaccine. Three.

As the Covid infection decreases in severity (as infectious outbreaks do), at some point the proportion of side effect risk will equal the risk of the disease itself. 

But overall, the world’s response to Covid was magnificent; a technological and organisational wonder. 

Rough calculations by the Global Alliance for Vaccines are that about 20 million lives were saved, by comparing death rates in countries that had the vaccine with those that didn’t.

Of course, there were legitimate debates to be had about keeping kids out of school, lockdowns, the expense, harm to businesses, etc. But for anyone to be throwing shade at the aims and intentions of the people involved in battling a lethal pandemic, especially a former Cabinet minister, is just hateful and stupid.

Social media

If there is an argument in favour of the notion that social media, and the internet broadly, is fostering this kind of weird paranoia, what precisely would the proposition be? 

I suppose it would be this: before the internet, information flows were extremely mediated, and it was comparatively more difficult to convincingly air and publicise a contested view. Newspaper editors would toss your bonkers letter into the bin, for example. But generally, I think it’s great to have lots of contested views. Why is this bad?

After the advent of the internet, two things began to operate in tandem. 

First, internet algorithms are inclined to elevate views similar to your own, however outlandish they might be, feeding you content to satisfy the pre-existing views and prejudices of practically anyone with any given view. 

The total volume and variety of views necessarily make all views seem equally valid. By introducing infinite diversity and false equivalence, the internet has effectively downgraded the institutional view. 

Institutional trust levels

As Martin Gurri suggests, there has been a general bleeding away of authority; the advent of a very angry public, and a public mired in negation.

Second, this tends to intensify what we describe as confirmation bias. 

Confirmation bias is perhaps the most obvious and pernicious of the 14 or so biases that people are susceptible to. It’s the tendency to favour and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values. 

The effect is strongest for desired outcomes, for emotionally charged issues, and for deeply entrenched beliefs, Wikipedia tells us. And it’s not affected by intelligence; ie, smart people are as susceptible as dumb clucks. Doesn’t that all just ring a bell?

How disruptive to life and politics is this effect?

This is a much harder question to answer. After all, despite the best efforts of Naidoo and people like him, South Africans, and people all over the world, submitted to the vaccine process. The vast majority of SA’s citizens believed the science. Fabulous. Hats off to us.

On the other hand, the world’s political systems are transparently more fragile and more susceptible to populists, and levels of institutional trust are sitting at all-time lows. 

But there could be all kinds of reasons for that, including, most obviously, the increasingly bifurcated nature of global power. To my mind, the correlation between those factors and the advent of the internet is conceivable but has yet to be demonstrated. 

Maybe it’s because I’m a journalist, but I prefer to have the facts first. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • steve50 says:

    A long and detailed writing about something “ nobody care’s anymore “. Interesting ?

  • Martin Smith says:

    Vast majority of South Africans? According to Gavi by mid January 2023 only 35% of people had been fully vaccinated. You’re a journalist, lover of facts look it up.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Like with almost any topic nowadays, there are many wild and completely fake stories out on the internet. The topic warrants independent and absolute research because of the scale of this rollout and the likelihood that we will have more and more frequent pandemics in the future. Science should know how safe or unsafe the RNA and DNA tools are.

    It is hard to scientifically differentiate symptoms now from long-covid versus from vaccines. To differentiate, one would need to study people that absolutely certainly never had covid but did have vaccine against a group of people that absolutely certainly did have covid but did not have vaccine.

    I am pro vaccine and had both covid and vaccine in that order, but there does seem to be a very defensive response from the industry about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines. Move on, nothing to see here?

  • A Z says:

    Shame, Tim. 2 days and nary a comment. It appears it may be you who is arguing in a vacuum which nobody cares about anymore. As for your lead ‘That anti-vaxxers are still going on about it says far more about them than it does about pro-vaxxers’; the journalist doth project to match me thinks.

    Which takes me to the tail of your ‘argument’ where you opine ‘maybe it’s because I’m a journalist, but I prefer to have the facts first.’ In matters of business I don’t question your credentials, but in this post you come across a little more as the zealot. I know one cannot reason a man out of a position he did not reason himself into but there’s always hope. Despite being a journalist whose 1st/most important quality should be a healthy dose of scepticism, you show an unquestioning faith in authority, authority figures, experts and the product of for profit companies simply because they are in the fields of virology and medicine. In doing so, you ignore the fact that they are as prone to corruption, fraud and causing injury at the hands of their research, products and policies as any other industry. So, follow your journalist’s nose, start with Abdullahi vs. Pfizer, then the same company settling with the US government for $2.3 billion in 2009 – at the time the biggest healthcare fraud settlement in the history of the US Justice Department. Go from there and you may start to question the sacred texts, offices and preachings on which your pandemic fundamentalism is based.

  • Mark K says:

    Jay Naidoo has gone anti-vax? Terribly disappointing. I used to put up with the woo from him because he clearly has a good heart and there are often germs (excuse the pun) of truth in what he had to say. The internet has a lot to answer for, but I blame our former and present education systems more. They don’t seem to have inoculated most people against BS, which surely must be a primary goal of a good education system.

  • Stephen Browne says:

    Is it too soon to sit down with our anti-vaxxer associates and make them revisit their wild predictions? I want them to show me the mass deaths / DNA manipulation / whatever was going to happen if we took our medicine. Maybe I’m being petty, but I just want them to squirm a little.

    • A Z says:

      Stephen, look at the non-Covid related excess death rates across OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries 2021 – 2024 and apply the barest amount of critical, deductive thinking. You will begin to realise it goes beyond even the wildest predictions. No pettiness, no squirming, just the facts and a willingness to square off with what the known, quantifiable-down-to-the-individual variables have been in that period.

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