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Sensemaker: Convince the unconvinced

Wednesday 9 December 2020

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Nearly 1,700 passengers were stranded on a “cruise to nowhere” in Singapore after a Covid case was detected on board.
  • Iraqi Christians reacted with delight to the Vatican’s announcement that Pope Francis will visit Baghdad and Ur next year.
  • US President-elect Joe Biden promised to distribute 100 million Covid vaccine doses in his first 100 days in office.

Convince the unconvinced

Yesterday the UK embarked on its biggest mass vaccination programme in history, but its ability to start getting back to normal will depend on just how big that “mass” is. And it’s the vaccine hesitant, not the anti-vaxxers, that the government needs to concern itself with the most.

What proportion are hesitant? About 30 per cent of UK adults are generally uneasy about the vaccine, according to the latest polling – many more than are full-blown anti-vaxxers (18 per cent). This reflects a survey from a few weeks earlier which showed that only 7 per cent would definitely refuse a vaccine but nearly one in five were reluctant to some degree.

Why might people hesitate? The World Health Organisation’s vaccine advisory group has identified complacency, inconvenience in accessing vaccines and lack of confidence as the key reasons for hesitancy. It is this last reason that may be holding reluctant Brits back: more than half, whether or not they believe they will take the vaccine, think it has been rushed.

Are some demographics more hesitant than others? Yes. For instance, just 39 per cent of ethnic minority Londoners say that they are likely to take the vaccine compared with 70 percent of white people in the capital, according to a Mile End Institute survey. Only 0.5 per cent of the nearly 362,000 people who volunteered in the nationwide Covid-19 vaccine registry were Black. Distrust of the government and racial inequalities in health are likely to be to blame for greater hesitancy among these groups.

How much non-uptake can the “herd” live with? That depends on the effectiveness of the vaccine. One academic paper has calculated that to have a fighting chance of extinguishing an epidemic without any other measures (such as social distancing):

– 100 per cent of people need to be vaccinated if the vaccine is 60 per cent effective;

– 75 per cent of people need to be vaccinated if the vaccine is 70 per cent effective;

– 60 per cent of people need to be vaccinated if the vaccine is 80 per cent effective.

That doesn’t yield a clear answer for Britain, which plans to use a few different vaccines with different efficacy rates. But given the bulk of the vaccination is expected to be done by the AstraZeneca jab (70 per cent efficacy rate, although more below), with some help from the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines (both around 95 per cent efficacy rate), the amount of non-uptake we could afford will likely range from between 25 per cent to 40 per cent.

What level of non-uptake is likely? It’s a fool’s game to predict this, and much depends on how much confidence is sown by the first few weeks of the vaccination programme, but 20 per cent of people have said they’re unlikely to take the jab if it is available and the government recommends it. The rest of us could just about live with 20 per cent failing to get vaccinated.

What else do we need to remember? It’s not all about Britain. To bring a widespread end to the acute phase of the pandemic, vaccination has to be global. And the proportion of people across 15 major countries who say that they will get a Covid-19 vaccine fell from 77 per cent to 73 per cent between August and October. There’s a delicate but enormous public education challenge ahead to stop this slide.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Farmers’ strike
Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, says his government’s intentions are “as holy as the water of river Ganga”, but hundreds of thousands of farmers disagree. They’ve launched a national strike which has shut down large swathes of India, blocking roads and train lines across the country. The farmers are calling for the repeal of new laws that will deregulate crop pricing and – workers fear – will leave them unprotected against exploitation by big businesses. It’s the latest cri de coeur by an already heavily indebted agricultural sector which employs 60 per cent of the country and saw more than 10,000 of its farmers die by suicide last year. Farmer suicides in the state of Punjab, which has been at the helm of the protests, have increased by more than 12 times in the last five years.

New things technology, science, engineering

AstraZeneca takedown
In early September AstraZeneca officials failed to mention a crucial development in a call with the Food and Drug Administration: it had paused global trials two days earlier after a participant became ill. This is just one of several miscues to have damaged the vaccine maker’s relationship with US regulators, according to a NYT ($) report that also digs into why a sub-group in the phase 3 trial got an initial half dose instead of a full one. (An outside manufacturer apparently included an ingredient that skewed its measurement of viral particles in the vaccine.)  The upshot is that a vaccine which a peer-reviewed study published yesterday showed to be safe and effective is falling behind in its efforts to win approval in the US because of a perceived lack of transparency. Which is sad, and was avoidable. 

The 100-year life health, education, living, public policy

Reckoning for rugby
Former England hooker Steve Thompson can no longer remember his 2003 World Cup victory. Aged 42, with two kids, he has been diagnosed with early onset dementia, which he believes has been caused by repeated blows to the head. He is leading a group of eight retired rugby players under 45 who are planning to bring a legal action against the Rugby Football Union. There are another 90 players with likely dementia symptoms thought to be caused by a sport of increasing impact: the average number of tackles per game has nearly tripled in three decades, according to World Rugby. The legal case follows the NFL’s enormous concussion settlement in 2013, and may portend a broader reckoning in sport. Last month Sir Bobby Charlton became the seventh member of England’s 1966 football World Cup winning squad to be diagnosed with dementia. It’s hard to reminisce about our heroes’ success if they can’t do so themselves.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Peak growth
Mount Everest has grown by 86 centimetres. That is the conclusion of Chinese and Nepalese surveyors who say their collaboration reflects warming ties between the two countries (they have previously squabbled over the mountain’s height). It was speculated that the peak had shrunk after a huge earthquake struck the region in 2015, but yesterday’s new elevation surpasses the 8,848 metres which had been regarded as the “official height” since 1954 (the mountain is famously difficult to measure). Few people would have been as interested as Doug Scott, the legendary British mountaineer who died on Monday aged 79. He was part of the first UK team to summit Everest via the notorious south-west face, and dedicated his later years to supporting schools and health centres in Nepal. We now know his Everest ascent was just that little bit more impressive.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

YouTube, the radicaliser
The perpetrator of the 2019 Christchurch shooting spent time on fringe right-wing discussion groups, but an 800-page report into the shooting gives credence to the attacker’s own claims: that YouTube was a far more significant tool of inspiration and information. The report’s conclusions shouldn’t be surprising. In 2019 the NYT set out ($) in painstaking detail how the site can act as an “on-ramp” to extremism, and a growing number of Silicon Valley apostates have warned that the YouTube algorithm directs users to more and more extreme content. New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has promised to talk to YouTube’s bosses directly, but she has also offered her own apology. According to the report New Zealand’s security agencies were almost entirely focused on Islamic terrorism at the time of the attack, in which the white supremacist murdered 51 Muslims in the middle of worship.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around. 

Xavier Greenwood

Photographs Getty Images