I got my first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine yesterday. A second dose will be required for full immunity, no word on when that’ll be available, maybe in a few months, and I’m left to wonder whether it will still be effective when it comes time to take it.
Why wouldn’t it be? Because we’re in a desperate race right now. Us against the virus, loser loses all. If we can break the tape first, and achieve herd immunity, we’ll have slammed the door in its face, and life might just return to something resembling the old normal. If the virus, using the collective biomass of all those who remain un-vaccinated as its laboratory, manages to invent new versions of itself that defeat the vaccines, it won’t matter that we all get the jab. It won’t do us any good. COVID 2.0 will sweep right past our new defences, and we’ll be back at square one, none of us immune any longer. It’s absolutely vital: we must reach herd immunity quickly and put an end to the bug’s efforts to evolve, or, sooner rather than later, it will evolve.
In fact, it already has evolved, to a point. Variants that have sprung up in South Africa, the UK, and by now almost certainly the US, are proving both more contagious and, we’re beginning to think, more deadly when contracted. It’s hard to keep up, with the virus doing its thing faster than we can gather the data, but so far we’re fairly sure that none of the mutations now spreading around out there can beat our vaccines. Sadly, that’s a happy situation that can’t last forever, and we really have no idea for how much longer. The bug, like all bugs of its ilk, is working furiously within all the human bodies it can still infect, so, once more for emphasis: we must deprive it of its workspaces before it’s too late. We must inoculate the preponderance of our populations before the present variants spawn offspring that can skirt the immunity so many worked so hard to grant us.
So why won’t people get the shot? Why oh why, in the name of all that’s holy, do they not believe it’s safe, or even necessary?
Well, thereby hangs a tale. The present scourge of vaccine skepticism, as promoted by the folks who refer to themselves proudly as “anti-vaxxers”, seems to have begun with a misbegotten paper published in 1998 in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet. It purported to set out research indicating that the standard Mumps/Measles/Rubella vaccine could be linked to autism in developing children. The article sat out there, apparently uncontroverted, for quite a while, gaining currency while its primary author, one Andrew Wakefield, published follow-up papers in minor journals in which he claimed that immunization in general wasn’t safe. A world with a seemingly endless appetite for conspiracy narratives glommed on to the idea, with various, mostly B-List celebrities (among them Jessica Biel, Alicia Silverstone, Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, Rob Schneider, Jenna Elfman, and others) jumping on the bandwagon, while people all over the expanding universe of social media fuelled the controversy with wild theories and reams of anecdotal, and entirely worthless, so-called evidence.
Unfortunately, it was all a lie, the articles and research upon which it was based completely fraudulent, as was revealed after investigative journalists discovered that Wakefield had been paid over £430,000 by unscrupulous British trial lawyers who had a financial stake in proving that the MMR vaccine was dangerous. It wasn’t until 2010, however, that Lancet completely withdrew the article, and by then the damage was done. Half the planet, it seemed, believed it, and the original lie, tarted up with all sorts of additional “evidence” and conspiracy mongering, spread all over the world, copied, re-copied, and endlessly embellished. Ironically, vaccine skepticism went viral.
The latest iteration of the conspiracy theory has the COVID-19 vaccines laced with (apparently very tiny) microchips at the behest of Bill Gates, who for some reason wants to track our movements. Big Data and all that. Very sinister stuff. Apparently, none of those spreading this nonsense ever paused to consider that they, and hundreds upon hundreds of millions like them, were already quite happily carrying corporate tracking devices around with them everywhere they went, embedded within their smart phones. Remember, kids, the phone knows where you are, which is how you use the map and navigation apps, right? This was the same crowd that insisted that 5G wireless networks were spreading the virus in the first place, apparently so the illuminati could scare us into taking the tracking-chip vaccines.
Even worse, now that everything in the United States has to be subsumed within the Red State/Blue State culture wars, the whole idea of vaccination stopped being a public health issue, and became polarizingly political. Of course it did. Blue lined up with the epidemiologists, Red with the conspiracy mongers, and in the result many Republicans won’t take the shot. Nossir. They just don’t trust it. They feel this way even though it wasn’t that long ago that God Himself, Donald J. Trump, was purporting to be the author of our vaccinated salvation with his much-ballyhooed Project Warp Speed, something that seems to have been forgotten with the help of the lying liars at Fox News, who apparently think it’s worth people’s lives to get in the way of what will now look like a success for Biden, and by Trump himself, who got the vaccination – you bet he did, just as fast as he could – but instead of taking a victory lap kept quiet about it. Anything to stop the Dems from looking good.
(Just as an aside, will we never be rid of Rupert Murdoch and his malignant media empire of cranks, liars, and right wing propagandists? He’s something like 106 years old by now, isn’t he? What, he’s immortal or something? Swear to God, that man has done more to harm western civilization than the likes of Mao and Stalin ever could, and nothing ever seems to be enough for him. If you won’t do the decent thing and kick the bucket, Rupert, would you at least conclude that you’re now quite wealthy enough, and can afford to hang ’em up? Sell the networks and the papers to somebody else maybe? Pretty please?)
Sad to say, the anti-vaxxer movement, and the insanely dangerous falsehoods it fosters, haven’t confined themselves to the United States. This is from research published last August by Statistics Canada:
That’s not great. Depending on the breaks, numbers like that might not get us to herd immunity. In America, a sizeable minority, including a little less than half of those who identify as Republican, tell pollsters that they’re either unlikely or unwilling to take the vaccine (compared to about 85% of Democrats who say they definitely will or already had), figures which would put the US right on the cusp, with about 70% of the total population willing to get vaccinated, also maybe not quite enough for herd immunity. In the European Union the figures are, astonishingly, much worse – this is from a recent article in Forbes:
Only 36% of the surveyed Europeans strongly agree with the statement that vaccines are safe. Posed the question whether respondents would be willing to be vaccinated if the vaccine was found to be safe and effective and provided free-of-charge, only between 44% and 66% answered in the affirmative. Moreover, a separate poll in France found that only 40% of French people want the Covid-19 vaccine.
That just won’t do it. Those sort of numbers won’t get us there. And in case you’re thinking who cares about herd immunity so long as I’m immune, see above, and remember, none of us is safe until everybody is. We are all at the mercy of those who reject the science, and refuse to acknowledge what’s at stake.
As the reader would no doubt expect, this just makes me mental. Thinking about it renders me f’ing near crazed with frustration. What is wrong with people? I used to think that the continuing appeal of the anti-vaxxer movement would dissipate just as soon as its adherents, strangers all their lives to what a world without vaccines looks and feels like, were hit with an epidemic, and learned the brutal truth. I watched closely over the past few years, as there were outbreaks of mumps and measles, diseases once thought eradicated in this part of the world, and thought there, now they’ll get the message. But they didn’t, and they still don’t, even when confronted with a bug that’s slaughtering their fellow citizens like nothing seen since the 1919 flu. Nothing gets through to them. They want to go to Fort Lauderdale and crowd the beaches. They want to eat indoors at restaurants. Screw the propeller-heads and their attacks on our cherished freedoms. It isn’t true anyway, right? The bug’s not that dangerous, and the vaccines aren’t even safe – they give kids autism, did you know that? Look it up! – so back to the convention centres, arenas, and concert halls we go, abetted by politicians who don’t wish to offend their base.
It’s an attitude that may kill us all, and of all the things that make me sad, none brings me down more thoroughly than contemplating how we’ve arrived at a place where miracles can be dropped on our door steps, but we won’t accept delivery. Imagine if the beleaguered populations of the world of 1919 could have had what we have. What would they have given for the privilege? The mind reels, thinking about the horrors of that era. We don’t even know for sure how many died from the flu then, maybe 50 million worldwide, maybe more, while damned near everything that walked or crawled came down with it. The best science of the day could identify the culprit as a virus, barely, but they didn’t have the instruments needed to even see it (that took the invention of the scanning electron microscope), much less the wherewithal to develop potions to deliver the whole world from the monstrous contagion. People were helpless. It was horrible, then, and not only then as the 20th century progressed.
I was born of parents who grew up in a world largely without vaccines, who witnessed successive waves of measles, whooping cough, mumps, tuberculosis, polio, and a host of other destructive pathogens as they washed over society virtually unimpeded. They knew what it was like to see one of these on a neighbour’s door:
That wasn’t my world. I never saw anything like that. I was born at just the right time, but only just; the polio vaccine, for example, wasn’t ready until 1955, only six years before I arrived. Soon after it was deployed, a bad batch in America resulted in thousands being infected, and 200 children dying, but they forged ahead anyway, and people kept taking it and getting their children to take it, knowing that the alternative to running the small risk was far more terrible. It was thus available for me, and nobody even entertained the notion that I wouldn’t get it.
When I got to school, my Grade 2 Teacher, a young woman, laboured with a limp that remained after polio was done with her. That’s how close I came to growing up in a world at the mercy of dread disease. My parents were able to explain to me that what happened to people of her generation wasn’t going to happen to me, and much later I realized better what that meant, as I read a little and learned that compared to many, she was let off lightly. Before the vaccine, it was possible to find scenes like this in the sanitoriums:
Those are iron lungs, a blunt solution to the problem of being rendered so paralyzed by polio that you couldn’t even breathe properly. The machine breathed for you, mechanically expanding and contracting to allow its occupant to exhale and inhale, while living like this:
Not everybody who went into such a machine ever got out again. I was spared all that, and much else besides, freed from the threat of all manner of life-threatening illnesses the symptoms of which I wouldn’t even be able to recognize. What does rubella look like? How do you know you’ve got whooping cough? The kids today have every chance of being even better off. Unlike them, we had no vaccines against mumps, measles, or chicken pox, and I caught them all, but still I was lucky, growing up within the first of a series of blessed generations that wouldn’t have to worry about losing friends and family to merciless, hideous, unstoppable pathogens. Back in the day, you could more or less count on it. Somebody close to you would be felled. Not when I grew up, and not anymore, unless we’re stupid about it.
It wasn’t that long ago. All across the continent still stand the abandoned facilities, huge and monstrous buildings looking for all the world like maximum security prisons, which once served as the holding pens for those afflicted with TB, polio, diptheria, and all the rest. They serve today as playgrounds for amateur ghost hunters, but not, apparently, as the sobering reminders they ought to be. Truly, they were dreadful.
Horrible. Ghastly. Most who passed through the doors of these awful places never saw anything outside of them again. But what else could we have done with the thousands of desperately ill men, women, and children? They had to be kept apart. Their continued presence among us wasn’t safe.
My heart sinks, watching so many around me who’re willing to open the door that leads back into that world of iron lungs, quarantine notices, and vast sanitoriums, refusing, if it was up to them, to deliver us from all that sorrow. Not to be bitter, but may the angry spirits of the untold millions of dead come back to haunt them.
Post-script: Interesting article in the Atlantic states that at current acceptance rates the U.S. will top out at 65%, not enough for herd immunity. The author argues that we can’t really lay vaccine skepticism at the doorstep of Wakefield and the anti-vaxxers, since if you look at the data across time, people have always been hestitant, and always to more or less the same degree. In other words, they didn’t need the anti-vaxx crowd to persuade them into being dummies, it’s just the way they always were. Not sure about that!