The government should not stifle the hesitant population
(Shutterstock from The Conversation)
The development of effective vaccines within twelve months of Covid-19 emerging is of historic significance, yet it has occurred at a time when many people the world over have lost faith in traditional institutions and officialdom.
Some are convinced that mass-vaccination is the final component alongside measures like mask mandates and lockdowns to implement a global totalitarian conspiracy aimed at acclimatising liberal societies to extreme social control. Others laugh out loud at that notion and eagerly found a way to skip the queue to acquire a vaccine.
In the middle, many just have questions that they want answered before getting vaccinated. Not everyone who has doubts about getting vaccinated is a tin-hat wearing bumpkin — they might be nervous about how quickly the vaccine was developed or are skeptical of the motives of big pharma.
Regardless of your stance, it should be patently obvious that shaming the other side into compliance is a hopeless expectation. While I myself am scheduled to get the vaccine, many intelligent and educated people now fall into the vaccine-hesitant camp. Shutting down their genuinely held concerns and classing them as stupid and uneducated goes no way towards changing their minds or bettering public health outcomes. The good news is that sunlight is the best disinfectant — free speech allows for bad ideas to be defeated because we get to know why they are bad.
Access to information is crucial in a pandemic. In New Zealand, the daily press conferences (at 1 pm) have become a ubiquitous feature of lockdown life for many. Kiwis have also turned to the news media and social media to understand better this new enemy and gain insights into how best protect themselves. But alongside verified information, they have been bombarded with stories from both sides that have either misinformed or disinformed them.
Discovery of truth
It has long been said that free speech allows for the truth to be discovered through a fierce competition of ideas. In a free marketplace of ideas, every idea has the opportunity to be considered against others. Individuals are then free to make up their own minds and can choose to accept or reject ideas based on how well they stack up against others. In theory, free speech allows any idea to enter the marketplace, thus facilitating the search for truth. But should misinformation be permitted to enter the marketplace? Surely by its very nature, it sends us in the opposite direction that we would want to go on in search for truth.
Fair enough, but if we decide that misinformation should not be permitted in the marketplace, how do we decide, and more importantly, who gets to decide?
Perhaps the government must fact police and censor anything potentially false.
But suppressing the flow of information requires the government to act increasingly like the Chinese or Russian regimes. Not only is this something that anyone who relishes living in a free society naturally resists, but its counterproductive to winning the war of ideas.
Measures to censor bad information only reassure the conspiratorially minded that their ‘Deep state’ world view is the correct one.
Further, it occurs to me that the fact that government does not always get it right (or more particularly is sometimes slow to internalise new information).
Points to ponder
Last week, Yale Researcher Dr Anne Wylie told Nine To Noon, “Things that are just downright wrong are being said by the Prime Minister with regards to saliva testing so that misinformation amongst the government prevails.”
I would incline toward saying that (1) even well-intentioned government is not foolproof; (2)) Insofar as the vaccine hesitant are often suspicious of government, moves to control misinformation may do more harm than good; especially as eradicating bad information (especially on social media) is vastly more difficult than eradicating a virus – and boy, do we know we know how hard that is.
If the goal is convincing as many people as possible to get vaccinated, then we must end the stigmatisation and silencing of those who are not on board. Persuasion of the vaccine- hesitant through reason and evidence will do far more to maximise the benefit of vaccination for our communities than ostracism and silencing.
Jonathan Ayling is the Spokesperson for the Free Speech Union based in Wellington.