This is part 2 of an exploration into the Queensland Government's so-called 'vaccine mandates.' Please read part 1 first at this link.
20 December, 2021
Most of us are feeling a little scared and perhaps confused right now. The pandemic has been a profound shock to the collective human psyche, with a lot of people recognising for the first time just how messed up our entire system is, and confronting the realisation that governments and big corporations often act contrary to the long-term public interest (duh!).
But simplistic and often ill-informed debates about exactly how contagious and dangerous covid is are arguably distracting us from deeper conversations about system change.
I see people protesting against being forced to get a vaccine for work because they’re worried about how to pay the rent or the mortgage… but they’re not protesting against the commodification of housing itself.
I see people complaining that they’ve been locked out of commercial spaces where they used to socialise and connect with their community… but not fighting for better freely-accessible public spaces that support community-building without paywalls.
The systems and structures that shape our lives are complex, and there are many interrelated factors behind why our political and economic systems are so broken. Faced with the bewildering and imposing behemoth of system change, some people become overwhelmed and start looking for simpler answers and explanations.
‘The system’ (if we can even speak of such a thing) is indeed corrupt. But it is incredibly simplistic, naive and dangerous to act as though that ‘corrupt system’ is just a shady group of powerful, evil individuals sitting around a table in a boardroom somewhere plotting to control us all with vaccines. Claims like that just don’t stack up to close rational scrutiny.
Conspiracy theories tend to become more common in times of crisis and instability. I think there are a few related factors that drive this…
- People want certainty. They want to feel like they have access to knowledge that makes sense of the world around them.
- People want power and a sense of control. We can often feel powerless during disasters and major upheavals, particularly in contexts where we are actually all part of the problem in some way. The simplistic explanations that conspiracy theories offer give people a misdirected sense of empowerment (even when those explanations are completely off-target).
- People want to feel special. Feeling like you’re part of a rare group that’s “awake to the truth” can become part of a person’s sense of identity. For some, a sense of being superior to all the ignorant ‘sheeple’ can even make them feel better about themselves.
That’s why I don’t bother debating with people who are firmly convinced that covid-19 isn’t real or that it’s “no worse than an ordinary flu.” If a person’s sense of identity is so wrapped up in the idea that they are in on a special secret that everyone else is too brainwashed to understand, there’s no point trying to debate them directly. It’s far more productive to have a conversation about what kinds of information sources we should consider trustworthy, and how we can effectively distill something approximating ‘truth’ in a world that’s over-saturated with uninformed gossip and misinformation.
If you’re the kind of person who accepts that the virus is real and potentially quite harmful, but still has concerns that the vaccine side-effects might outweigh the benefits it offers, I hope you’ll at least consider these ideas…
1. If people in positions of power thought that a vaccine - or in fact any kind of new medical procedure or drug - had particularly severe potential side-effects or a high risk of causing harm, they would not be testing it on middle-class and upper-class people in privileged societies like ours. Global vaccination rates show very clearly that the poorest and most disempowered people in the world have been denied access to covid vaccines, while well-off people in well-off countries have had the best access.
There are numerous examples throughout history where experimental drugs and medical procedures have indeed been trialled in poor/developing countries or on the most marginalised and vulnerable members of a society. But when governments have serious doubts about the safety of a vaccine or drug, they don’t start by administering it to rich white people.
2. While a lot of people are articulating concerns about how quickly these vaccines have developed, it’s good to remember that the scientists involved were building upon years of research into other similar viruses, and that the scale of public and private investment into developing covid-19 vaccines has been huge.
Throwing more money and human resources at a scientific research problem does often lead to faster results and outcomes. So it doesn’t surprise me that the world has come up with vaccines for the first strains of covid much faster than we’ve developed and tested vaccines for some other diseases in the past. I know this won’t fully reassure everyone who has concerns about the vaccines, but it’s worth at least keeping in mind.
3. If there IS a real conspiracy related to covid, it’s the fact that the world’s most powerful and wealthy nations colluded with big pharmaceutical companies to limit the ability of poorer countries to manufacture their own vaccines locally.
Private companies like Pfizer and AstraZeneca developed their vaccines in part by exploiting or building upon publicly-funded research. Once they’d proved these vaccines were effective against the first strains of covid-19 (note that they’ve turned out to be slightly less effective against newer strains), the companies patented them. They asserted intellectual property rights over the knowledge which meant that no-one else (no other companies or governments or non-profit organisations) could make those same vaccines without permission from the companies that held the patents.
Poorer countries around the world argued that the knowledge of how to make these vaccines shouldn’t be privatised, and that if they had to pay big pharmaceutical companies for the right to manufacture them, millions more people would die. But for many months, wealthy nations like Australia have sided with the profit motives of big pharmaceutical companies over the needs of poorer/developing countries, restricting vaccine supply and creating conditions where the virus had more opportunities to mutate.
4. Statistics are easily misrepresented and prone to misinterpretation. There have been a lot of wild claims circulating online that I’m not going to go into here, but I did just want to point out that when talking about death rates or illness rates (whether from a virus or from possible vaccine side-effects), we need to be smart enough to distinguish between correlation and causation…
With any really large population, you’re inevitably going to have a certain number of people who are dying at any given point in time from one condition or another (the most common causes in Australia being various cancers, ischaemic heart disease, cerebrovascular diseases like strokes, various respiratory diseases, dementia and diabetes). Hundreds of people (mostly older people, but also a surprising number of middle-aged and younger people) die every day in Australia, even outside of the context of a pandemic.
Millions of people die every day around the world. Some of those deaths are ‘preventable’ and some aren’t. That’s just part of life.
Recently, millions of people have been getting vaccinated against covid. So statistically speaking, it’s inevitable that some people who were likely to die anyway from some pre-existing condition (whether known or unknown) would happen to die within a few hours or days of receiving a covid vaccine. In fact, it would be weird if that WASN’T happening.
This doesn’t mean a vaccine is causing those deaths.
Why are we getting vaccinated?
I’ve seen a few people who are resistant to getting the vaccine making comments along the lines of “Well if someone is worried about catching covid, they can get the vaccine, so why does it matter if I choose not to get vaccinated?”
It’s important to remember:
- The vaccines reduce the risk of catching covid
- The vaccines reduce the severity of the disease if you DO catch covid despite being vaccinated
- The vaccines reduce the likelihood of spreading covid,
- The vaccines don’t provide 100% protection against covid, and
- The vaccines don’t 100% reduce the risk of spreading covid
So even if I’m vaccinated against covid-19, if lots of other people I come into contact with aren’t vaccinated, that still increases the risk of me catching covid (compared to a situation where almost everyone else was also vaccinated).
At the time of writing, there’s still a lot of uncertainty about how severe Omicron covid is and how effective the current vaccines are against it. This further complicates questions about what kinds of public health measures are appropriate and proportionate to the risk. It could well turn out that newer strains are more infectious but less severe, in which case a few years from now, lots of people will be asking what all the fuss was about, as they forget how harmful earlier strains were. Personally, I’m quite supportive of a cautious approach, because I have elderly parents who would be at higher risk of severe harm from a covid infection, and I know friends who’ve lost parents to covid.
My decision to get vaccinated was based partly on the conclusion that the harm and health risks of catching covid to me personally were significantly higher (like WAY higher) than any possible health risks or side-effects associated with the vaccine.
But it was also based on my sense of responsibility that I didn’t want to spread covid to others - particularly people who have really weak immune systems and would have a high chance of dying if they did catch it.
Much of the rhetoric from people who oppose vaccine mandates on the grounds of ‘freedom’ has been incredibly ableist. Even if the average risk to most of us is pretty high, the fact that some people in our community have a really high risk of dying from covid should be enough reason for us all to act more cautiously.
Why should the freedom of an unvaccinated person to enter a restaurant or go to a festival take priority over the freedom of an immuno-compromised person to use those spaces?
Some people in our community can’t get vaccinated because of various health conditions even if they really want to. This includes a lot of people with severe disabilities and immune deficiencies. After extended trials, the vaccines have now been declared safe for older children, but younger children are still going to be unvaccinated for the time being.
While the first strains of covid-19 seemed more likely to severely impact older people, newer strains like Delta and Omicron can also cause serious harm to younger people who might not be vaxxed. So even if vaccines are only partially effective at reducing the risk of spread, I feel that we have a responsibility to get vaccinated, not just to protect ourselves, but to protect others in our community.
When I got the first dose of the vaccine (Pfizer) I didn’t feel any negative side-effects other than a slightly sore arm around the injection site. When I got the second dose, it made me feel really tired for half a day and I had some aches in my muscles that went away as soon as I took a panadol. I felt 100% fine the next day. I’ll probably get the third booster shot when I eventually become eligible for it. And I’m encouraging everyone else to get the vaccine too if you can.
Don’t be conned
In the past couple of years in Australia, we’ve seen a litany of major privacy invasions and attacks on freedom by both governments and big corporations. Several states have tightened laws against peaceful protests, and both governments and private companies have used the legal system and the police to come down harder on activists involved in various campaigns.
There’s been a massive expansion of digital surveillance in the form of the federal government’s ‘Identify and Disrupt’ legislation, more jobs in more industries requiring Blue Cards or police checks, raids by the Australian Federal Police on various media organisations, and increasing pressure on journalists to reveal sources who have blown the whistle on government cover-ups.
I could go on with a much longer list, but the point I want to highlight is that most of the prominent politicians and organisers involved in the ‘freedom protests’ against the so-called vaccine passports have said and done absolutely nothing about these various attacks on freedom. In fact, some hard-right politicians like Pauline Hanson and Clive Palmer have been actively supporting expansions of police power and increased state surveillance, while simultaneously pretending to care about ‘freedom’ and human rights.
This has been a familiar pattern throughout history - right-wing politicians who speak of freedom and individual autonomy while spreading fear to gain power, and ultimately ending up authoritarian dictators themselves. Their hypocrisy is so blatant it’s almost comical, yet a lot of people who oppose vaccine mandates seem to be swallowing their propaganda uncritically, calling everyone else ‘sheep’ but acting like sheep themselves.
So yes, I think the government’s policy of severely limiting what kinds of businesses unvaccinated people can access and work for is pretty messed up for a whole range of reasons. And I’ll continue to raise concerns about how that framework is playing out in practice.
But I really do think a lot of people who are feeling nervous about getting one of the covid vaccines need to look beyond the fear that power-hungry politicians, shock-jocks, and clickbait headline-writers are spreading about them. If you’re genuinely concerned about expansions of state power and excessive government interference in our basic freedoms, that’s fair enough - I am too.
But don’t let people use those concerns to manipulate you.