It’s easy to think in stereotypes about people who refuse vaccinations. Anti-vaxxer… conspiracy nut… whackjob!
That might be true of some people who fear vaccination, but it’s certainly not all of them.
Elizabeth is a cheerful, athletic-looking hospitality worker in her thirties. She says she is careful, but not obsessive about living a healthy life. ‘I like the taste of fresh food much more than processed food, so that’s what I tend to eat. I prefer organic food because I don’t like putting weird chemicals into my body, but it’s a preference not a rule.’ She follows several wellness influencers on Instagram but says this is because of her preference for a healthy lifestyle, the influencers did not create it. ‘I like the recipes and the way they think about a whole life of healthiness,’ she says. ‘It’s not like I’m there for advice, it’s just nice and comforting. They have a really positive outlook on life.’
She is also wary of doctors and would rather take minor ailments to a naturopath or a chiropractor than a GP. ‘I’m not an idiot though,’ she says, ‘I don’t think western medicine is very good at maintaining good health or treating women’s issues, but if I get cancer or heart disease, I’m going straight to a hospital.’
Elizabeth hasn’t been vaccinated against COVID-19 yet. She says she will, but she’s scared. ‘Everyone says its safe, but it all happened so quickly. How can they really know? And I don’t think they’d tell us if there was a problem. Governments want everyone to go back to work. Doctors want everyone to believe medicine is always successful. The people making the vaccine want to make money. Who would tell us if there was reason to worry?’
Elizabeth is far from alone in her thinking. According to the University of Melbourne’s Vaccine Hesitancy Report Card, as of September 2021, eight percent of Australians are still unwilling to get vaccinated and a further seven percent are unsure about it. It’s encouraging that this figure is down from a peak of twenty percent refusal and seventeen percent unsure in May, but at least half the people still refusing vaccination say they will not change their minds, even if it means they’re banned from everyday activities, such as going to restaurants and concerts. Even if it means they are at risk of getting sick or dying.
Governments, academic and medical organisations around the world have reached overwhelmingly consensus that vaccines are safe and effective against COVID. Similarly rigorous analysis has shown that masks and social distancing reduce the spread of COVID, and lockdowns are necessary to ensure hospitals are not overwhelmed.
The science says Elizabeth does not need to worry. But Elizabeth is not a scientist, and she has reason to doubt the people who demand her trust.
Indeed, the debate over vaccines, and the hesitancy by many to be vaccinated, is in some ways merely symptomatic of our times. We are in the midst of a trust crisis, where too many of the public bodies we once turned to for advice and care have squandered our confidence. Religions have been revealed as protection rackets for paedophiles. The Banking Royal Commission exposed corruption in many of the institutions we trust with our finances. Less than half of us trust an increasingly polarised and politicised media. Even sport, once a haven from our daily tribulations, is riddled with doping and corruption scandals.
The medical profession, particularly pharmaceutical companies, has done much to undermine public trust. In 2016, an investigation found drug companies spent over $43 million in just over six months on ‘educational events’ for doctors. Pharmaceuticals are a four-billion-dollar industry in Australia and the profit motive can give rise to suspicion. As do the millions of dollars the industry donates to political parties. Pelvic mesh implants to treat post-childbirth problems caused horrific complications that were largely ignored until a class action won millions from Johnson and Johnson. There are many other examples, but suffice it to say, Elizabeth’s misgivings about medical advice are not unfounded.
Governments, maybe more than any other institution, have squandered public trust. The 2019 Australian Election Study, conducted by The Australian National University, revealed only 25 percent of people believe governments can be trusted. Lead researcher, Professor Ian McAllister, said at the time, ‘I’ve been studying elections for 40 years, and never have I seen such poor returns for public trust in and satisfaction with democratic institutions.’
Perhaps we should be surprised that so many people have been willing to comply with government health orders, rather than raise our eyebrows at the minority who are, at best, wary and at worst, utterly unwilling to believe anyone in authority.
Laura Henshaw has lived through Melbourne’s lockdowns, so she understands more than she wants to about public health orders. Laura and her friend Stephanie Claire Smith founded the Keep it Cleaner wellness program, which has over 320,000 followers on Instagram.
The impetus to create the program was an earlier unhealthy relationship with food and exercise, which Laura says started with misinformation from online influencers when she was in her late teens. ‘I studied biology in year 12, but when I was scrolling through Instagram all of my knowledge about science and genetics went out the window. I thought if I ate the way those people said they ate, I’d look like them and be happy like them, or at least what they appear to be. I lost too much weight, I was exercising for the wrong reasons, and I ended up really unhealthy, especially with my mental health.’
Laura says she has no trouble understanding how people can follow influencers down a dark path. ‘Steph and I ensure that absolutely everything we do at Keep it Cleaner is created with and backed by our team of experts, but it would be naive to think that’s why our followers trust us. We put a lot of ourselves online. People feel like they have a relationship with us. That’s what builds the trust.’
Posts by Australian online influencers encouraging vaccination reached nearly four million people in the first half of this year, according to analytics platform HypeAuditor. Most of the people who saw and responded to those posts were women between 25 and 44 years old. It’s impossible—and possibly overstating it—to say this is the reason for the reduction in women’s vaccine hesitancy, but it may well have had some effect.
Laura, whose personal Instagram account has over 270,000 followers, was one of the influencers who advocated for vaccination. Hers was an intimate post about the anxiety COVID caused her and how relief brought her to tears when she got her vaccination. That she knew she would lose devoted followers over that post is a measure of the strong reaction from people who refuse vaccination. ‘I had to do it though,’ she says. ‘One of the things that helped me feel safer was seeing vaccination pics from people I trust. I wanted to do that for other people.’
She says there was some trolling, but not as much as she expected. ‘There was a bit of the “my body my choice” stuff, which is fine, but the thing I didn’t understand was the “do your research” claims. Research is hard! I’m studying for a business and law degree. I know how much work and research I’ve had to do for that and I’m not close to being an expert yet. So how can reading a few blog posts, or even a few medical papers make you an expert? It takes years to do real research. I put my trust in the qualified medical professionals.’
There’s that word again. Trust.
Strong ties to community is a basic human need. It’s primeval, stemming from the deepest part of the brain that knows that we cannot survive alone. Like so many evolutionary imperatives, that need may be redundant in the modern world, but it is no less powerful. Ostracism can feel life-threatening and conversely, nothing makes us feel as safe as a durable, loving community.
The extended lockdowns in Melbourne and Sydney have created a collective, traumatised loneliness. Lockdown denied many of us access to colleagues, friends, and family. Our online communities have become ever more significant. In a global health crisis, wellness influencers have a particularly strong resonance. Health is on all our minds and public health policy, once the neglected stepchild of state and federal politics, has been a leading news item since early 2020.
Under pressure, isolated and fearful, it’s not at all surprising that people are turning to trusted online communities for comfort and advice.
Much of the online wellness movement has a foundation in science. The evidence is clear on the benefits of daily exercise, minimally processed food, lots of vegetables, and self-acceptance over self-loathing. It would be curmudgeonly to suggest that everyone sharing this in beautifully presented, dreamy images are not still sharing scientifically sound and useful information.
Many, maybe even most, of the wellness influencers are well-intentioned. But in some of those tightly bound online communities, where the search for new content is never ending, there is an undeniable slide from wellness to outright rejection of facts. A better smoothie. Weller wellness. More health and love and rainbow kisses. If sunshine and freshly squeezed juice makes you feel good, then can’t more sunshine and extra concentrated superfoods heal whatever ails you? If you feel connected to someone living a wonderful life, and watch as they are admired by millions of people gushing loving emojis over every post, how can an exhausted GP in a cramped grey room know more than them? How can someone you don’t know be right when so many people in your community believe they’re wrong?
You can see the change clearly when you trace through pages of wellness influencers over time. What started as misgivings about public institutions ramps up until any public health advice is anathema. Fear of vaccines turns into certainty that they are a direct threat. As the relationship between the influencer and followers becomes closer, the more they feel attacked by outsiders who disagree with their doctrine. And there, mixing it up among the faithful, are the inevitable grifters whipping up fear to sell wellness powder and snake oils to vulnerable devotees.
Faith, according to the Christian Bible, ‘is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’. The digital age provides a new medium, but the message has not changed: faith is about belief, not proof. Even the risk of death may not be enough to shake it. History is full of people who have been willing to die for their beliefs. We used to call them saints and martyrs and terrorists. Now we call them anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists, and we are infuriated that we cannot argue them away from their fear and their faith.
Fear is an emotion, not a decision, and it’s difficult to assuage it with statistics alone, mostly because our brains cannot visualise large numbers. A vaccine may have a risk of one in a million people dying, but that is meaningless when we see a news report that one person has died. A photo and a name make that one death real, heartbreaking, and terrifying. The 999,999 people who lived are an amorphous mass of incomprehensible nothings.
Denying, sneering at, or attempting to disprove articles of faith doesn’t work. Connecting to the fear and loneliness that drives people to anti-science might be the only thing that can change people’s beliefs. Perhaps the wellness messages of love yourself, love your people might be the answer after all?