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18 August 2021

Why does the media mollycoddle anti-vaxxers?

Those who are pro-vaccine shouldn’t be doing the hard work to understand the other side – there’s a reason why we don’t ask drunks how they feel about not being allowed to drive.

By Jonn Elledge

There is a viral tweet that, as an extremely online and fundamentally broken person, I am currently thinking about rather more than I am most of my friends or family. It is a quote-tweet of a story from the US business news network CNBC that is headlined, “Vaccines are being required for travel – here’s how unvaccinated people feel about that”. “Being sober is now required for driving a car,” runs the response from a chap in California calling himself @Aquma, “here’s how alcoholics feel about that.”

This isn’t, as the poster himself admits, an entirely fair comparison: alcoholism is a disease and an addiction. It does not automatically lead to drunk driving, and it is not the same as simply refusing to get vaccinated because of (citation needed). That tweet is also a comment on the US rather than Britain, where vaccination rates are much higher – a fact that is increasingly obvious from the relative death rates of the UK and, say, Florida.

Nonetheless, the rise of social media means that we on the English language internet are increasingly all swimming in the same content sewer. This may be one reason why the UK has its own small but busy group of anti-vax protestors who, last Monday (9 August), accidentally besieged some posh flats under the mistaken assumption that the building was still the headquarters of the BBC.

And Aquma’s tweet stays with me because it raises a question to which I would quite like an answer: why are we mollycoddling these people? Why even the momentary suggestion that the vast majority of them are acting out of anything other than selfishness? It is possible that some have specific reasons to be wary of relatively new medical treatments about which we still have limited information – but it is fairly clear that the vast majority of the people trying to violently smash their way into Television Centre were not, in fact, pregnant women.

What’s more, most of us are capable of accepting that we have responsibilities that outrank our own urge to do whatever the hell we want. We expect people to get vaccinated against other conditions. We don’t drive after six pints, no matter how much of a ball-ache it is to take a night bus, because we know that our right to convenience and personal autonomy matters less than other people’s right to not have a drunk driver plough into them at a bus stop. When people decline to follow these rules, we expect the law to get involved.

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Yet somehow, anti-vaxxers – or those people who feel oppressed by the existence of face masks, come to that – don’t expect to be treated the same way. They imagine that their right to make their own choices matters more than the rights of everyone else not to get sick. And, for some reason, the discourse is asking them why, rather than telling them to grow up.

[see also: Are just 12 people responsible for spreading more than half of all Covid-19 vaccine disinformation?]

To be charitable for a moment (no, honestly, let me give it a try), the Covid vaccines are new and the rules against drink-driving also took some time to reach universal acceptance. The dangers that not being jabbed or not wearing a mask present to those around you are not immediately obvious; the downsides of having a needle stuck into you are.

But there are two other ways, I think, in which the media itself has contributed to this mess. One is the habit of framing everything as a debate. It’s easier to turn dry facts into a story if you can find two groups that disagree and let them fight it out. But for questions in which the facts are all on one side – is this vaccine dangerous? Is climate change real? – this framing has the unfortunate side effect of suggesting people who are wrong might have a point when they really, really don’t.

The other trend that has got us here – which may, in fact, destroy the world – is that of exhorting one side, and only one side, to understand the other in the big political divides of our time. Just as it’s always the Remainers being told to empathise with Leavers, the Democrats with Republicans, diverse metropolitan types with racists in small towns, parts of the media have slid, unthinkingly, into asking the majority to do more to understand the concerns of anti-vaxxers.

This is stupid. Empathy doesn’t run one way, and if we’re ever going to bridge those divides, each side needs to understand the other. Quite apart from the morality of the situation, it is patronising in the extreme to suggest that only Remainers/Democrats/metropolitan liberals are capable of understanding those who disagree with them.

More to the point, it’s not those who are pro-vaccine who should be doing the hard work to understand the other side: they are not the ones being selfish. There is a reason why we don’t ask drunks how they feel about not being allowed to drive the car.

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