Forget knowledge is power, in a post-truth digital landscape it would seem conspiracy is the new currency. While vaccine opposition isn’t a new phenomenon, coronavirus presented a unique opportunity to online anti-vaxxers, commercial opportunists and indeed anyone looking to prosper from dealing in misinformation. As an organisation led by science when determining the best ways to support people, the movement is not simply one we cannot support, but one I believe we must challenge.
However you view the Anti-Vaxx movement’s recent momentum, it is clear it could undermine the roll-out of any future vaccine against COVID-19. Alarmingly, a survey led by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) found that around one in six British people were unlikely to agree to being vaccinated against COVID19, and a similar proportion had yet to make up their mind. The survey, which polled 1663 people, found that individuals who relied on social media for information on the pandemic were more hesitant about the potential vaccine. Kaleidoscope’s ethos to apply evidence-based approaches to drug and alcohol services puts us at odds with the movement, and we wholly oppose conspiracy theories, often founded in hysteria, and that undermine public benefit.
Of course I can empathise with feelings of mistrust in our Government. In our field in particular, we witness nonsensical government decisions that permit us to give clean needles to people who inject drugs, but forbid us to provide a safe place for that activity to happen. I often despair at Government that seems more led by opinion poll ratings than following evidence of what works. When we consider the Criminal Justice System for example, we know prison works only to keep dangerous people out of our communities. The idea that the current prison system leads to any rehabilitative benefit is enormously discredited. Again, in terms of drug policy, UK Government believes the best way to tackle this public health emergency is to use blunt enforcement, rather than wrap-around strategies that can make a real difference. For these reasons I understand why people in our field are sceptical of Government and its edicts, however in all these instances, government decision making is deeply flawed because it refuses to follow the science. And unlike Trump in his White House prison issuing counter proposals to those who try in vain to advise him, we’d do well to trust in the experts.
When Public Health warn us of a deadly virus we must take it seriously and dispense with conspiracy theories that rely on pseudoscience, individuals masquerading as virologists, and quite often emotional manipulation. It is worrying that 31 million people follow anti-vaccine groups on Facebook, with 17 million people subscribing to similar accounts on YouTube. Indeed inspiring fear with pseudoscience is the new cash cow, and the CCDH report calculated that the anti-vaccine movement could realise US$1 billion in annual revenues for social media firms. As much as $989 million could accrue to Facebook and Instagram alone, largely from advertising targeting the 38·7 million followers of anti-vaccine accounts. Dubious ‘Health’ products are popping up everywhere, leading Amazon to bar one million products for false coronavirus claims.
Within this echo-chamber of misinformation, ridiculous statements ring loud and clear. Despite giving billions to fund a broad range of social, health, and education developments, Bill Gates is a target of the anti-vaxxer’s ire, and they believe he will somehow control us through this vaccine. Other champions of bonkers theories include David Icke – who spoke at that London rally – and Kate Shemirani, suspended nurse and figurehead of the anti-vaxx movement, who has trebled her Twitter followers since comparing lockdown to the Holocaust. We’ve heard everything, from accusations of a deliberate attempt to cull the global population, to an endeavour led by the Chinese to destroy the western world. And while the virus was first discovered in China, viruses spreading as a consequence of poor animal welfare practices is not unique to China, as Denmark’s recent mink cull has served to remind us. So to avoid other public health disasters we do need to re-think our treatment of animals. At its roots, Kaleidoscope promoted vegetarianism and it is a cause I think we should revisit. In fact, research from Mintel revealed that vegan diets have become more attractive to consumers during the Covid-19 pandemic and in particular to a quarter of young British Millennials.
At Kaleidoscope we have had staff and service users impacted by the virus and I am sadly aware of people who have died from this terrible illness. We support vulnerable people and we must do all we can to keep them safe. I am aware that some agencies have told staff to switch off the track and trace app, but we take the health and wellbeing of our service users, staff and wider community seriously. We would not allow the fulfilment of a business priority to jeopardise public health. In the same way as we see the light of a vaccine ahead of us, we will expect all staff to do their bit by having the vaccine and protecting their health, their colleagues, their service users and the wider community first. Whilst we await the vaccine we have granted all staff additional sick leave to use should they contract the virus, however this will cease once a vaccine is available. Of course we cannot force people to have the vaccine but we certainly would not financially support those opting to fulfil the anti-vaxxer’s maxims.
At Kaleidoscope we are lucky to work alongside excellent medical advisors. If our lead clinician, with his links to Public Health, says the vaccine is an important measure to protect us against this virus then this is the team we should all listen to. I am unsure why anyone aligning themselves with the anti-vaxx movement would want to be part of an organisation that has always believed in the value of science, having introduced Buvidal, Espranor and other radical medically based services to support people. I know this has been an incredibly tough time for people and it is easy to feel angry, isolated and anxious in these uncertain times. It is easy in such circumstances to be drawn in by conspiracy theories, but they are incredibly dangerous, and as professionals I would expect people to behave in a rational and evidence based way, ensuring they talk about the right ways of getting help, just as they do when dispensing health advice to our service users.
CEO at Kaleidoscope