There are two fronts on which the various parts of the Trinidad and Tobago medical establishment are fighting Covid-19 battles – the first is the battle against the virus, and the second is the information battle. Winning on the second front is very important to success on the first.
Worldwide, the battle against a viral enemy constantly throwing new tactical formations at us has been taking longer than many imagined it would when it first confronted us in March of 2020. We’re showing signs of being worn down by the fight, and even giving up. And the info battle is being lost.
The infantrymen of misinformation – whether they are willing or accidental conscripts – seem to find more receptiveness to their message than the experts do to theirs. Ad men love clicks, likes and shares. They’d kill for those that the resistance gets.
Let’s talk for a moment about that battle, and begin by giving Jackie her jacket. The T&T Ministry of Health, Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) and other health bodies have stepped it up on messaging in the past year. Clever minds have come up with good public education programmes and spots across traditional and social media. There’s good stuff on the radio and TV.
I haven’t done a deep analysis of the uptick of messaging or its effectiveness, but it seems as if they’re trying their best. The question to ask, with the best will in the world, is whether that best is good enough. I’d say it’s not; and one reason for that is an establishment that is too reactive and mostly on the back foot.
Take the three I’s of the misinformation apocalypse… India, Israel and Ivermectin. Folks opposed to vaccinations regularly cite, without pushback, medically debunked information on all of them. The way they tell it, India undertook a massive programme of Ivermectin treatment that sharply reduced Covid-19 infection numbers. There was no massive Ivermectin dosage programme that led to a correspondingly large reduction of infection numbers in India. The drug is too expensive for that. Yet this is a big conversation piece in T&T.
Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh came late to the Ivermectin discussion, describing the supposed cure as snake oil. He said at the MOH’s first news conference of the year on January 4 that frontline doctors at A&Es, based on conversations with patients and their relatives, noticed high dependence on Ivermectin.
“The doctors have asked me to raise this… because they are concerned, appalled and disheartened by the continued reliance by persons on Ivermectin”, Deyalsingh told the press.
The chatter about the medicinal properties of Ivermectin had been going on for much of 2021. The rebuttal, from the minister and from the doctors on whose advice he relies, should have come much sooner than four weeks ago. And it should be sustained, ongoing, more vigorously asserted, and put into media that have more reach and popularity than the regular press conferences.
The doctors on the frontline clearly think that it is harmful. The medical establishment should act as if it is. We’ve not heard enough from the T&T Medical Association in almost two years of this pandemic. If they’ve done consistent public information messaging in that time, I haven’t seen it, and I pay close attention to these things.
Let me declare an interest… I ran workshops for the T&TMA, pro bono, on preparing senior doctors for the rigours of media inquiry, but none in the past three years. This is a friendly calling out. Get involved frontally in the battle. And do not bring toothpicks to a stick fight. Lives are on the line, and as of last Sunday we’d lost 3,395 of them; an alarming rate per capita.
As was shown in this space last week, Israel is frequently cited as a place where the percentage of the vaccinated population is very high, and where the infection rate is also. Conclusion? Vaccines don’t work, but instead make things worse. We saw how that information was misrepresented. Push back. Rapid rebuttal, and hard.
UNICEF and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) recently published a survey on vaccine hesitancy in six Caribbean countries, including T&T. Here are a few things that stood out in the report. In general, social media is the preferred avenue for information of vaccination… no surprises there. Mistrust in vaccines in Grenada skews towards women under 50; in Barbados towards men under 50.
Hesitancy has hardened. I’ve been arguing for some time in this space that it now looks like outright resistance. The report notes of respondents that “a significant proportion (is) now even less inclined to take a vaccine; and this pattern is consistent across all countries, with the highest percentage in Trinidad and Tobago and the lowest in Grenada”.
According to UNICEF and USAID, another reason respondents gave for not getting vaccinated was, “medical advice suggesting that it should not be done. However, in close to two-thirds of cases, respondents did not consult a doctor before taking this decision”.
In plainer language, the “medical advice” that is playing a significant part in decisions to not get vaccinated, is the unofficial stuff with which we’re being inundated, like the three I’s. More people seem to be placing trust in what Deyalsingh calls the snake oil, than in the advice of the medical professionals on whom they usually rely. That is the scale of the task. It needs to be confronted vigorously.
The author is a media consultant,