The pandemic is testing our societal structures like never before. To deal with it successfully, we need to think and act collectively, led by our key institutions. But at a time when unity is critical, are we about to see the effects of a long-standing and corrosive drip feed of mistrust?
The rapid development and testing of COVID-19 vaccines has been an extraordinary scientific undertaking. What happens now is arguably even more important: to ensure the vaccines are an effective intervention, people will need to take them. The practical challenges of manufacturing and dispensing millions of doses worldwide are of course immense, but societies also have to deal with the issue of vaccine hesitancy: the belief that a vaccine may be unnecessary, ineffective, or unsafe (and perhaps all three). Unsurprisingly, people who have these concerns may be reluctant to take a vaccine; they may even refuse it outright.
Vaccine hesitancy isn’t new. However, the pandemic has created the ideal conditions for mistrust of a COVID-19 vaccine to thrive. Part of the problem is the complexity and variability of transmission and infection. The fact that you may not catch the virus if you break social distancing guidelines and that the illness may be mild if you do get it, has led some to conclude that there isn’t a real problem. The unprecedented speed with which the vaccines have been developed has also provoked worry: there are concerns that safety has been compromised or that the vaccine will be rolled out before we understand the extent and nature of possible side effects. Moreover, the Internet is awash with misinformation — including conspiracy theories – about the virus, lockdown, and vaccinations.