Several years prior to the pandemic arising, Professor Heidi Larson of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (and founding director of The Vaccine Confidence Project) warned of the dangers of the spread of ‘viral misinformation’,the distrust in vaccinations that seemed to be worsening and the threat this poses to global health. In a similar vein, the World Health Organisation (WHO) named vaccine hesitancy in its top 10 threats to health in 2019. The rollout of Covid-19 vaccinations have demonstrated that these long-standing worries around vaccine hesitancy are not without basis- all manner of misinformation has surfaced online since the first vaccines were approved, along with more generalised and widespread concern that the vaccines have been ‘rushed’.
Although official information has been released in attempts to correct mistruths and alleviate concerns, claims about the vaccine inevitably spread faster and reach more people through social media than via official channels. Although regulating posts on social media is something sites such as Facebook have improved upon recently, there is arguably further to go with this and the problem may now lie more so with subtle posts influencing people’s opinions as opposed to blatant anti-vaxxers, which is much more difficult to police. In addition to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, WhatsApp is another hotbed for misinformation- which can spread rapidly between different groups without regulation as encryption has now been put in place with concerns regarding safety being brought to light. This is especially problematic as individuals are arguably more likely to believe something forwarded directly to them by a friend. Importantly though, it is those actively spreading and endorsing misinformation we should be frustrated at, not those who have been taken in by it.
Increasingly, documentation is showing that those belonging to ethnic minority groups are less likely to take up the Covid-19 vaccine when offered it. In December, the Royal Society for Public Health conducted a poll which showed that willingness to have the Covid-19 vaccine amongst individuals from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds was only 57%, compared to 76% of the UK population as a whole. This is not a simple issue of ‘not wanting the vaccine’, but is understandably born from a longstanding lack of trust in officials and structural inequalities that minority groups are constantly faced with. Importantly, it has been pointed out that it is easy to blame those who are hesitant to receive the vaccine, rather than addressing the important systemic issues underlying this.