Orin Gordon

IN response to a question on April 21 about public confidence in the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, T&T’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Roshan Parasram, spoke of a “thromboembolic phenomenon”. He must have mistaken the T&T public for a UWI postgraduate class.

Given that a Ministry of Health doctor had some time ago deftly but unmistakably bouffed a TV journalist for pitting her “Google search” against his medical expertise, Dr Parasram himself sent us googling.

The CMO’s answer summed up the medical authorities’ approach to tackling vaccine hesitancy, in that it’s hard to see where they’ve put tangible effort into the much-needed full-court press on educating the public about vaccines.

Let’s give Jack his jacket for a moment. Of late, Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh has been doing a creditable job communicating information around the vaccination programme. Last week, for example, he was particularly effective at walking us through the process of how people with non-communicable diseases qualify.

Given the chronic shortage and the decision not to use any of the current small stock for second shots, it could be some time before the rubber meets the road—enough vaccines, but not enough willing arms. Nevertheless we have to be prepared for the day when the why is more important than how, where and when.

I got my first O/AZ jab two Sundays ago. Days before, a relative had spent a lot of time trying to talk me out it. She was very worried. She’s a smart, information-savvy person, but she pointed to people in this country who she said had died after taking the vaccine.

We went back and forth. Eventually, exasperated, she said that I’m a big man, and free to make my own decisions. I asked her if she was going to say nice things about me in my eulogy. She didn’t see the joke.

I wrote here four weeks ago that vaccine scepticism could in time become the dominant problem. I didn’t expect it to come this close to home this quickly. On these pages last week PAHO/WHO representative Erica Wheeler said that misinformation can kill. Diabetics qualify for the vaccine, regardless of age. Those who are hesitating in the face of the current scary spike are basically rolling the dice.

There’s an information void, and it’s being filled in large measure by sceptics, genuinely nervous people and conspiracists—people who have no medical training but speak with great faux-authority about the dangers of vaccines. With a bow to Eminem, would the real medicos please stand up.

We need simplified, conversational messages… messages that don’t patronise or talk down to people, and recognise that some holdouts like my relative are not gullible, low-information people. We need to get creative… skits that talk to real life scenarios. We need to get as basic as explaining what a vaccine is, preferably without using the word “thromboembolic”.

US President Joe Biden’s vaccination drive has been a stunning success. One hundred million Americans have now got both of their shots. Even so, Biden recognises that there’s a hard core of sceptics, and his administration is planning a billion-dollar PR blitz to reach them, as well as the soft-undecideds.

The Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), a well-respected tracker of Covid-19 trends, has found that a third of Americans are resistant to taking the vaccine. Biden’s blitz would enlist the help of actors and other celebrities.

Here in T&T, the media need to take care not to contribute to vaccine hesitancy. The T&T Medical Association and the Government have had their say. Let me declare an interest… in the past I’ve run crisis management training sessions for the T&T Medical Association doctors the last of which was three years ago.

I’m not going to rehash what any party had to say—just give my unfiltered, unbiased view of the issue in general.

First, proximity isn’t necessarily cause. Something happening close to another thing isn’t proof that they’re correlated. And while I respect the intelligence of the relatives of the distraught Uncle Harry, they’re not best placed—medically or emotionally—to tell me with ringing certainty that he died because he took the vaccine.

Their unverified claims should be aired with great care—or not at all. And no, placing an official denial alongside a factually questionable or empirically contestable assertion doesn’t always meet the standard of balance. If someone calls me a mango tief without offering any evidence, and you air both his false claim and my denial, it’s unfair to me (because I do ask for my mangoes). That’s not balance.

Some reports and reporting have been way too credulous. No family should have to come out and correct the record about cause of death. We should wait for pathologists’ reports with more patience than we’ve sometimes shown.

Journalism is a demanding business editorially, and a fraught one economically. It’s not error-free. In our market, much of what journos get wrong, they get wrong in good faith. That’s my view… form an orderly queue to pelt me with soft oranges if you disagree.

I like that journos have highly developed scepticism antennas. I don’t like that we don’t say “I don’t know” often enough. On vaccines, we should listen most closely to the experts—such as the WHO which has approved them. If someone claims differently from the doctors, then they should be required to provide solid contrarian evidence.

If we don’t do that, we let hesitancy win. We can’t. We’re in the fight of our lives.

• Orin Gordon is a media and

communications consultant

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