Brendan Hoban on Anti-vaxxers…
It’s time we stood up to the anti-vaxxers.
Western People 19.10.2021
What, I wonder, will be the response to Ireland’s latest footballing star, Callum Robinson, scoring five goals for Ireland in just two international appearances, after 18 matches with just one goal? Up to this week, Robinson seemed to be more noted for having contracted Covid on two occasions yet famously refusing to take the vaccine than for his footballing exploits in the green jersey. A fair question is whether his example to his now legion of young (and not so young) fans leaves an ambivalent legacy?
As I write, numbers contracting Covid have reached a worrying 2,000-plus, numbers being hospitalised are rising (slightly), and numbers in ICU remain stubbornly high. The word from the deputy chief medical officer is that the spread of Covid can be partly explained by the refusal of 370,000 people to take the vaccine. And it’s emerging that a significant percentage of those who have opted not to take the vaccine are the people getting the virus, having to be hospitalized and needing ICU.
It isn’t that we didn’t know the repercussions of not getting the vaccine. The statistics before it became available tell the true story and no doubt we would be still in lockdown if the vaccines hadn’t raised the siege that Covid has laid at our doors.
The logical and obvious conclusion is that, despite all the evidence for the effectiveness of the vaccine, those who have influenced others not to accept the vaccine have brought and are bringing on themselves, their families and their neighbours, a legacy of serious illness, hospitalisation and sometimes death. There’s no sensitive way to say that. But it’s true. And we need to face it.
For some odd reason that I can’t get my head around, some very extreme Catholics have bought into the strange belief that a vaccine that has saved so many lives is part of a conspiracy to take over the world. At any level this is dangerous stuff but it has become almost a badge of honour in the foothills of religious extremism.
The example of some of the more infamous anti-vaxxers, including Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, has given a certain air of religious respectability to a campaign that to most people is the polar opposite of the unequivocal pro-life stance that’s a fundamental part of their agenda. Notoriously Burke, an emphatic presence in Rome among those criticizing Pope Francis, refused the jab, contracted Covid, was on a ventilator for some time and is now being looked after by his sister in Monterey, California.
Now, not undone by the influence of reason or common sense or the irrefutable evidence that their campaign is bringing illness, hospitalization and death in its wake, the anti-vaxxers are unapologetically extending their campaign to include harassing individuals they perceive as ‘leading the people astray’.
This is evident in their picketing of the homes of politicians Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris and the chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, which has brought the anti-vaxxer campaign to a new low. To such a degree that questions are being asked as to whether a more robust approach needs to be taken, not just in terms of protecting public figures but in protecting public health and life.
For a time, the anti-vaxxers were a distraction, even an amusement, the nearest the media could find to an interest-group opposing public policy. This faded a bit after a few of their more vocal enthusiasts attempted to explain their rationale. The focus changed a bit towards a policy of giving them ‘enough rope to hang themselves’, giving them a platform to let them expose the very nonsense that they subscribe to by getting them to explain what they mean when they say that some (like Bill Gates and Hillary Clinton) are attempting to rule the world by establishing a new world order.
An example of such exposure was the stunning interview conducted some months ago by Claire Byrne on her RTÉ television programme with a woman completely out of her depth. In a strange way, it elicited not resistance or antipathy but pity that such a nice person had been so taken in by such blather that she had become an unwitting and ineffective vehicle for publicising it.
Generally, the anti-vaxxers occupy the same ground as other conspiracy theorists, like the QAnon protesters who were involved in the storming of the US Capitol building in Washington. What seems to be happening is that the usual control that common sense and intelligence bring to bear on outlandish and absurd notions seems to have been progressively diminished by figures like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson gaining electoral support despite how ridiculous the policies they adopt.
For Trump, as for Alice in Wonderland, words mean whatever you want them to mean. For Boris, lies are just part of the weather of his life, and blend effortlessly as the truth as he sees it.
This is what someone called ‘the progressive weirding of public life’ where logic and what we used to call ‘truth’ no longer really matter. And, if you get enough people to follow you, logic and truth are created on the hoof so that the margins between what’s true and untrue, what makes sense and what’s nonsense, becomes progressively narrower, even to the point of evaporation.
Who are these guys, as Butch Cassidy once asked the Sundance Kid? And what do we do with these people?
It’s coming to the point when the common good will demand that we do more than just accept that freedom involves the right to damage health and possibly end life? Or even maybe to question whether sports stars playing for team Ireland (like Callum Robinson) have larger responsibilities than just scoring goals against poor opposition.
We thought the Irish had common sense and would be immune to American cultism and conspiracy-mongering. But this mental virus knows no boundaries. And exposing vaxxers on TV is counterproductive, since the taste for the lunacy is immune to rational refutation and positively thrives thereon, since its mental daring exults in absurdity and contradiction as the very marks of its transcendental force. You cannot refute a conspiratist, for your refutation will instantly be absorbed into the conspiratorial hermeneutics and you will be read as confirming what you aim to refute. The very fact that you stoop to refute madness gives credibility to the madness.
I think the message has moved on a bit since Brendan wrote this article. We are no longer focussed on blaming the unvaccinated and are now concentrating on the need for the vaccinated to mask up, distance, isolate and otherwise restrain their behaviour.
Not that these are mutually exclusive, logically speaking, but emotional messaging doesn’t leave much room for subtlety and can’t simultaneously handle ‘the vaccines are the answer, every one must get one’ and ‘the vaccines are not the answer, we need behaviour modification too’. So we can only do one at a time.
There are good rational reasons why the message has had to move on – the R0 number that would be required for 10% of the population to cause an epidemic! But unfortunately it seems most people have given up on relying on their own rational faculties in relation to this and would rather wait for Tony Holohan to tell them that it’s the vaccinated who we should now focus on.
So here he is
(Click timestamp or go to 14.38)
We’ll see by next month whether the focus has in fact moved on to the behaviour of the vaccinated but right now, as Catholics, should we not worry if we find ourselves isolating and vilifying any group in society.
And, as Catholics, should we think twice when we find ourselves literally spreading a message of fear.
I’d be on first name terms with some of the people who picketed Leo’s house last week. I was with all of them (and a lot more) about an hour previously, outside the Dáil. I didn’t know they were going to Leo’s and if I had known I wouldn’t have gone with them. I don’t see the point and I have the same reservations as Brendan has about picketing someone’s private home (even more so if it was the case they had a family).
But these people are angry, as are so many more, at their exclusion from decision making and public discourse. They are angry at the intrusion and coercion that will always accompany that kind of exclusion. And no one believes any of that will end with the pandemic.
And they are within their Constitutional Rights to protest at Leo’s home. Although what a Constitutional Right means in the current ’emergency’ is anyone’s guess. The law allows it. The Garda Commissioner doesn’t feel he needs any additional powers. The Guards on the ground have the situation in hand with the powers available.
Again, as Catholics, should we really be talking about cracking down on outsiders and those looked down on by the powerful?
Isn’t there at least one way of looking at the Gospel message that might make us uneasy about statements like “a more robust approach needs to be taken [with protestors]” and “the common good will demand that we do more than just accept [their] freedom [and] right[s]”?
P.S. Leaving aside the whole vaccine question. Sometimes, for the most unlikely of reasons, something magnificent happens. Ignore why they were there, just take in the spectacle. This was two weeks ago on Vinegar Hill – and of course they sang Boolavogue
Rarer and rarer these days but now and again you get a reminder of why it’s so great to be Irish.
I got my two jabs earlier this year, and please God I will get my booster jab as well when my GP contacts me about it. I want to make that clear at the outset, that I agree with Fr Hoban on the basic point he is making. I agree too that some of the opposition to vaccination has been extreme.
What I do not agree with is the superior attitude, and the lumping of all who oppose vaccination into the one basket. I know a man who was vaccinated about 4 months ago, and who has suffered severe headaches and vertigo almost every day since. Most days he is unable to work. When he went back to his GP he was at first practically dismissed, because the symptoms he experienced were not on the list of side effects for that vaccine at that time. These symptoms were subsequently added to the list, and from then on he was at least listened to, but still no one is doing anything for him regarding treatment or amelioration. He is on a waiting list for a neurologist, having organised this himself, and will be funding it himself too. One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder how many more such cases are out there, and how many are being suppressed by our media.
Someone close to me refuses to get vaccinated because she has a history of allergic reactions, which nearly cost her life on one occasion in the past; she just about made it to the hospital to be treated for it. She is not picketing politicians’ or doctors’ houses, she has just made her own decision given her own circumstances.
In short, my point is that vaccines do not suit everyone, and that not everyone who got Covid vaccines ended up happy with their decision. Stop treating all such as deluded fools.
I read with particular interest your closing paragraph. “It’s coming to the point when the common good will demand that we do more than just accept that freedom involves the right to damage health and possibly end life?” I did not follow the discussion on the ACP website during the 2018 abortion referendum, and I am not aware what position Fr Hoban and other contributors took at that time, but I very much doubt that he, or anyone else, raised a similar question at that time, in connection with a “woman’s right to choose”. There may be double standards here.
I would like to make one final point about statistics. The current emphasis on data, in decision-making about Covid treatment, is in stark contrast to what happened in the abortion debate in 2018. Abortion is a well-researched subject, and there was a mountain of evidence out there to support what the pro-life organisations said in 2018 about increased abortion numbers following Repeal. The government, public service and the media suppressed this information. Instead, at least three members of the Cabinet repeated the mantra about abortion being “safe, legal and rare” and did not receive one media inquiry in response.
Having spent much of my professional life doing statistical research, I am all for evidence-based medicine. What the media and politicians and (I suspect, the ACP) want is to pick and choose – invoke data when it suits, and ignore it when it doesn’t. That attitude brought us to a situation where we are aborting about 6500 babies a year, and will likely bring us to an even greater number of abortions after the current abortion review. The National Women’s Council, for example, want to abolish the 3-day reflection period which allowed nearly 1000 women to change their minds about abortion in 2019 alone. But no one regards the NWCI as deluded extremists?
Will Fr Hoban have a newspaper column on that issue before the abortion review is completed?
Brendan Hoban on Anti-vaxxers.
I did not initially comment on Brendan’s piece as I realised that all reasonable people would concur completely with Brendan’s excellent analysis of this bizarre phenomenon.
I would normally use one word to describe the anti-vax brigade.
Now, I am inclined to use two: “absolutely mad”.