Virulent fears: the anti-vaccination campaign
Even as the light begins to emerge at the end of a long dark tunnel, the shadow of misinformation and irrationality is getting longer. While inoculation programmes against Covid-19 slowly gather steam across the world with some vaccines showing promising results, the anti-vaccination campaign has also been gaining strength in a number of countries. Its perverse success cannot be attributed to ignorance alone. Anti-vaccine ‘activists’ seem to be exploiting the uncertainties associated with the pandemic to bolster their agenda. India is not immune to the anti-vaccination rhetoric. A survey conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University found that in India, 25 per cent of the respondents were sceptical about Covid-19 vaccines. Significantly, social media has been turned into a potent weapon by the anti-vaxxers. Companies like Facebook and Twitter have promised to remove misinformation from their platforms but there is evidence to suggest that it may be difficult to weed out the mischief completely since services like WhatsApp — India’s WhatsApp user base is believed to be between 250-300 million — are protected by data encryption.
It is, thus, important to address the root of the distrust. The arguments against vaccines range from the religious — some sceptics believe that the vaccines contain animal by-products — to the reasonable — vaccine trials that usually take years have been completed in less than a year to deal with the coronavirus. The culture of populism seems to have aggravated suspicions. The vaccine had been offered as a sop in the Bihar polls even though there is a lack of clarity about its efficacy, model of distribution as well as relevant protocols. But concerns with vaccines are not new in societies battling orthodoxy and illiteracy. There had been attempts to malign India’s pulse polio campaign with rumours that the vaccine would make people infertile. The bitter experience of some public health campaigns — contraception and sterilization for instance — had also made minorities anxious. Yet, it is the community as a whole that can resolve this challenge. In the United States of America, political leaders cutting across party lines have offered to be inoculated on TV to allay public fears. In India, a similar role can be performed by not just politicians but also doctors and religious and community leaders to assuage fears. These measures to boost morale must be accompanied by a determined effort to contain the spread of malicious information against the medicine. Resistance to vaccination can be dealt with, but it would require policymakers to be sympathetic to people’s anxieties and nimble in devising a counter-strategy.