On vaccines, the Globe and Mail’s editorial is not giving it to us straight

A Globe and Mail editorial published Dec. 12, 2020, says that Canadians should be given the full picture on COVID-19 vaccines, including how they were approved, how they work, and how the risks are outweighed by the benefits. While I agree wholeheartedly with the conclusion of the editorial, the rest of it irresponsibly repeats misconceptions about vaccination and COVID-19 vaccines. By failing to communicate risk responsibly in the editorial itself, the Globe and Mail appears to support and condone inaccurate perceptions being spread in our society.

Its first argument is that “many Canadians are reluctant about vaccines” and “to some extent, they have reason to be” because of “government confusion, ignorance, inertia and mismanagement.” Reluctance about vaccines has a history as long as vaccination itself (as I have discussed in previous blog posts) and is not caused by the current Canadian federal and provincial government problems in managing COVID-19. Furthermore, vaccines are often part of public health strategy, but they are developed by private companies and heavily regulated through a science-based, objective process entirely autonomous and independent from the government of the day.

The editorial cites two recent polls of Canadians’ attitude. The Ipsos poll it mentioned said 70% of respondents felt nervous about getting a vaccine that was created and rolled out so quickly, but 57% said they felt confident that once a vaccine was approved by Health Canada, it would be completely safe (which the editorial failed to mention). The Angus Reid poll did find 36% of Canadians would prefer to wait for a vaccine, but that they would get vaccinated eventually (also not mentioned).

The editorial says this large group of vaccine-hesitant Canadians “are understandably reluctant” and “reasonable and rational,” when, in fact, the science shows that their concerns are misplaced.

In repeating that the vaccines were “developed at record speed” and received “rapid stamps of approval from the same governments that bungled so many other pandemic must-dos,” the editorial vaguely implies problems with the process, a view that is unfounded. Making baseless assertions has no place in responsible media.

Anticipating this reaction, the editorial justifies the view as one of “skepticism” rather than “cynicism” and says journalists need “evidence and proof.” There is no government cover-up or withholding of information. Globe and Mail journalists are covering the vaccine approvals; Health Canada would, I’m sure, respond to any questions the media have about the process. There is freely available evidence and proof. Here’s the US Food and Drug Administration data online.

Then the editorial accuses unnamed governments of “15-second web ads to tell taxpayers that everything is all right.” The advertising from federal and provincial governments in all media stresses the need for compliance with public health measures and the continuing nature of the emergency. In fact, I’m sure Canadians take “we will get through this” and “we’re in this together” as appeals to our strong collectivist feeling in order to improve compliance.

The editorial then gets into very murky territory by saying the risks of COVID-19 vaccines “appear to be low but are not non-existent for everyone,” whatever that Newspeak means. There is excellent evidence, published in many authoritative media, that the risks really are extremely low. The FDA, for instance, stated the vaccine had “low incidence of severe or serious events, and no clinically concerning safety concerns.” The editorial then mentions the two cases of severe allergic (anaphylactic) reactions in Britain, which were revealed immediately and transparently on Dec. 9, when approximately 100,000 people in the UK had already been vaccinated. So that’s a risk rate of about 0.002% — vanishingly low. Authorities in the UK are looking into the reasons for these severe reactions and have halted vaccination of people with a history of severe allergies of all kinds as a precaution.

The editorial calls for “a national conversation.” The media are part of such conversations and, in an era of misinformation, should lead in providing factual and accurate information, in their opinion pages as much as in their news pages.

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