Jen Gerson: Sorry, vaccine shoppers. Now you're the ones blowing this for the rest of us

You have a moral duty to get the first vaccine made available to you

Let me start by admitting that today's column isn't going to be for everyone. Around this fair country, eligible adults are now doing their duty, rolling up their sleeves, and taking the first COVID-19 vaccine available to them — many in my own family among them. 

To these souls I say thank you. I honour you. 

Now, please, I beg you, talk to your friends. 

Because a minority of people are not making good decisions, and it is to this group that I am writing today. 

From what I can tell, the vaccine-hesitant generally fall into one of two camps; those understandably spooked by a shit-cascade of terrible government communications, and alarmist media stories about the safety and efficacy of the AstraZeneca and Johnson&Johnson vaccines.

And then there are those who are simply irredeemably selfish. 

To the first camp, let me concede a very important point. I understand where your fears are coming from, and I don't think you're at fault for having concerns about these vaccines. 

First AstraZeneca was not recommended for over 65s, then the government reversed course and approved it for all adults, and then after another change, now it's not approved for those under the age of 55. Meanwhile, headlines abound focusing on rare blood clots and strokes: in short, I get it. Reading this, a lot of people have understandable fears about the risks of these vaccines. 

With some notable exceptions (see below) public health and government authorities have done a piss poor job communicating about the process by which they are approving this vaccine. Nor are they effectively explaining just how marginal the risks involved are. As a result, they are coming off as uncertain, and contradictory. 

I mean, take one look at this smarmy little clip from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. 

I'm not even sure where to begin here: the smug insistence on sticking to the facts — before pivoting to statements that are categorically false. The United Kingdom is not facing another wave; it is in fact lifting restrictions, and both case rates and mortality are falling in line with vaccination rates. Oh, and the U.K. leaned heavily on 20 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to accomplish this.

And then there's this statement from Trudeau: "Vaccinations on their own are not enough to keep us safe."

Well, then, what the fuck is the point, chief? 

Or take this CP story, which paraphrases Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam warning that vaccines aren't a panacea.

I'm not sure our officials quite grasp the inherent contradiction in this messaging. 

Vaccines are, quite literally, a panacea to COVID-19 — or as close to a panacea as we're going to get. Yes, I understand that public-health officials are squeezing a few more weeks of compliance out of everyone so they can get more shots into arms. Further, “Vaccines on their own are not enough to keep us safe” is the kind of inaccurate and disingenuous message we should expect from someone who knows damn well that we don’t have enough vaccine to keep us safe — and doesn’t wish to be particularly candid about that fact. But this strategy is beyond counter-productive. Namely because it makes it sound like there’s something wrong with the vaccine itself, rather than our inadequate and untimely supply of it.

But just stop and think about the implications of this message: if you were fearful to take the vaccine before, how are you going to respond? 

Wouldn't your self-motivated reasoning sound something like this: “Well, then, screw it. Clearly these vaccines don't matter, and my life isn't going to get any better if I take them anyway. So why bother risking death by blood clot?" 

If our authorities were not absolutely terrible at managing almost every level of this crisis, they would promise to ease restrictions as an incentive for vaccination, ie: "Please continue to mask and social distance as a precautionary measure, but fully vaccinated individuals are now free to travel, and to socialize with other fully vaccinated individuals, whee!" 

Further, competent officials would communicate explicit goals and thresholds ie: "Public health restrictions are a temporary stop-gap measure to curb another wave until enough people get both shots. We can lift all lockdown restrictions once n per cent of the population is fully vaccinated. Make your appointments now!" Then we could all be working toward a collective goal instead of drowning under the gloomy weight of believing there's no end in sight, and that our country is both rudderless, incompetent, and dumb. 

But no, this is what we get.

So I'd like you to know, vaccine waverers, that I don't hold you totally accountable for your own fears on the matter. You have not been given every reason to be confident in the judgement of your leaders, let's put it that way. 

But please allow me to reassure you, at least a little: despite the bleakness, there is every reason to be optimistic that the pandemic is almost over, and these safe and effective vaccines really are our best way out of this mess, however long it may take for them to arrive. The odds of a fatal incident as a result of receiving the AstraZeneca jab are so low that you're more likely to get hit by a car and die on the way to the pharmacy than you are to die of the shot. The odds are so low that we still can't be sure whether or not we're attributing ordinary everyday blood clots that would have happened by chance to the effects of the vaccine.

What is absolutely certain is that your odds of dying of COVID-19 — especially if you are over the age of 55 — are exponentially higher than the odds of dying of a vaccine complication. (By the way, the virus also causes blood clots.) 

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The math starts to shift a little for the younger: those most at risk of a vaccine-related blood clot seem to be young women like myself. That differing risk-reward trade off is not a reflection of a dangerous vaccine, but rather a recognition that the odds of death from COVID for the younger cohort are also very low.

Public-health officials are not communicating relative risk very effectively, no doubt because they too are also managing their own internal biases and fears. Doctors and researchers seem to have an almost-superstitious approach to sounding the alarm over human-created complications and mortalities, as opposed to their more natural counterparts. As if the dead care. 

Hence all the alarm over a vaccine that might kill one person to save another, say, 20,000 lives. On a human level, this is understandable, but it's a trolley problem that we are categorically failing, to disastrous consequences both home and abroad

So yes, I have some sympathy for the vaccine hesitancy — but only some. Because let's be blunt: some of this fear appears to be driven by pure selfishness and irrational entitlement. 

Take this now-infamous story about a woman who — upon receiving a miraculous life-saving vaccine that may go down as one of the most stunning accomplishments in modern medical history — said she broke down in tears. 

"They're acting more like a dictatorship, because they're taking away the freedom of choice ... I made the conscious choice to go for a Pfizer vaccine and that was not an option for me," she said, unwisely, to a journalist. 

Reading this story made me want to set fires.

This story made me fantasize about clearing the kids' seats out of my Barbie Jeep, filling empty mommy wine bottles with gasoline, stuffing the tops with the rags of my children’s outgrown clothes, lighting the tops on fire, and then driving around the city burning this vampiric gerontocracy to the ground. 

We have shut down much of our society for 14 long months to preserve the health of older and more vulnerable Canadians. We have not been perfect. And, of course, young and healthy people can also get ill by COVID-19, but the statistics are very brutal on this point: the work of health-care professionals here duly noted, the requirements of collective sacrifice have overwhelmingly fallen on those least at risk of the virus. There is an intergenerational inequity that demands acknowledgement.

Hard partying 20-somethings didn’t fail to fortify long-term-care homes, enact credible travel restrictions, rapidly procure adequate vaccine supply, or organize functional contact tracing. Yet it will be the young who will pay our way out of billions of generational debt; it's my kids who are going to suffer from cancelled schooling; it's my generation that has lost more than a year of dating and career opportunities and business. It will take decades to wade through the long-term damage wrought by the choices of the last year.

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It's become very popular for politicians like B.C. Premier John Horgan to deflect blame for spread of COVID-19 to the young; but no one seems willing to consider the uncomfortable counterfactual. 

Maybe we've done enough. 

Maybe we've done admirably, in fact. We bought our governments 14 months to get their systems and capacities in order. We bought enough time to allow scientists to invent and manufacture a vaccine that will save countless lives. If our governments have not made use of the gift of that time, their failure isn’t on us. And it certainly does not fall on the young people who make a living as essential workers, and must therefore bear a higher risk of contracting the disease and spreading it.

And so to the eligible vaccine shoppers, I say this: Enough. You don't have the right to squander the sacrifices we have all made for your benefit.  

You don't have the right to prolong this pandemic one single day longer than is absolutely necessary. You don’t have the right to wait for your shot of a limited supply of an mRNA vaccine that ought to go to someone with a higher risk of complications. You don't have the right to prevent my son from having another birthday party because you read good things about Moderna on Facebook and another four months stuck at home doesn’t matter to you. And you don't have the right to keep kids out of school for one more week to nurse irrational fears of a one-in-one-million outcome. 

My willingness to comply with any public-health restrictions will end the very moment I hear of AstraZeneca vaccines expiring unused for lack of uptake.

Society has done its duty. If vaccine shoppers are unwilling to accept the profoundly marginal risks involved in the act of preserving their own lives, then that moral duty ought to be deemed paid in full. Freedom of choice will be paired with the onus of responsibility. The rest of us will choose to get on with living.


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