Why is Europe so riddled with vaccine scepticism?

WHEN PFIZER and BioNTech unveiled their covid-19 vaccine, politicians from across Europe bustled to claim a slice of credit. German politicians reminded people that BioNTech was founded by two Germans of Turkish origin. Belgian ones were quick to note that the vaccine is manufactured in Belgium. EU officials hailed the way in which 27 countries had clubbed together to buy up enough stocks. Britain had to content itself with boasting that its regulators were the quickest to approve the drug.

Yet for a surprisingly large number of Europeans, a different emotion came before pride: paranoia. Despite scrupulous tests showing that the vaccine is safe, many people doubt it. One in three French people thinks vaccines in general are unsafe—the highest figure for any country, according to the Wellcome Trust, a British charity. A whopping 46% say they would reject a covid-19 vaccine when offered it, according to an Ipsos MORI poll. And France is not alone. In Italy, the EU’s third-largest economy, the Five Star Movement won power in part due to their avid fearmongering about vaccines. Nor is such dangerous poppycock confined to western Europe. More than 40% of people in Poland and Hungary say they would reject a covid-19 vaccine if offered. How did Europe become such a crucible of credulity?

Vaccine doubters have been around for as long as vaccination itself. An 18th-century French cartoon features two wicked characters chasing children with a syringe, dragging a green, smallpox-ridden monster behind them. Voltaire despaired at his countrymen’s misguided reluctance to try the rudimentary inoculations then becoming common in England. In the eyes of his fellow Frenchmen, the English were “fools…and madmen”, he wrote. Yet even so, riots in 19th-century England kicked off when the government made vaccines mandatory. People on Facebook today who swap hare-brained theories about Bill Gates wanting to insert tracking chips into everyone are the heirs to 19th-century pamphleteers who suggested people would grow horns if they took a vaccine. Europe has always been a republic of letters. Unfortunately it is also sometimes a republic of cranks.

What has changed is the motivation. In the 18th and 19th century objections were often religious, with illness ascribed to God’s will, or concern at the idea of interfering with nature, argues Laurent-Henri Vignaud, a historian of science at the University of Bourgogne. Now it is political. There is a correlation between doubting vaccines and voting for populist parties, points out Jonathan Kennedy of Queen Mary University of London. Both movements are about fear. Just as populist leaders of the left and the right stoke suspicion of Davos Man, so anti-vaxxers fret about another shadowy global elite—Big Pharma. Both populists and anti-vaxxers share an ability to turn a kernel of truth into a wider deception. Immigration has changed Europe, but that does not mean it caused all the continent’s problems, as populists suggest. In the same way, the opioid epidemic in America raises questions about the ethics of some drug firms, but that does not mean they want to put a chip in your brain. The same reflex lies at the heart of both: a distrust of experts and institutions. Europe is, increasingly, a paranoid continent, where people’s minds are filled with visions of enemies, mostly illusory. Vaccines join immigrants, Muslims and a host of others as the bogeyman du jour.

Politicians feel they must tread carefully. The British regulator’s speedy approval came in the knowledge that eight in ten Brits were keen on the vaccine even before a public-health campaign showed happy pensioners being jabbed. Swiss regulators have taken a more cautious approach, in a bid to allay the concerns of vaccine doubters. Jens Spahn, the German health minister, declared: “Nothing is more important than confidence with respect to vaccines.” It is, however, possible to be too cautious. Those who know France best suggest that people will be queuing up for the vaccine when it arrives. It is one thing to spurn a vaccine while Emmanuel Macron is extolling its virtues. It is quite another to reject one suggested by a family doctor. Actions do not always match words, particularly in France, where citizens often tick the most pessimistic box possible in surveys about the government. Long-held French doubts about vaccination do not manifest themselves in significantly lower take-up.

Likewise, anti-vax sentiment can flame out. While in opposition, the Five Star Movement, which is part of Italy’s governing coalition, happily stirred up fear of vaccines. Mandatory vaccines were “a gift for Big Pharma”, said Beppe Grillo, the former comedian who co-founded the party. In government, however, conspiracy theories collided with reality: a measles outbreak triggered the introduction of strict measures the party had once opposed. Populist campaigning does not translate well to the actual problems of government. In a peculiar twist, Five Star supporters are now more likely to support the idea of a covid-19 vaccine than the average Italian. European countries have grown unused to large-scale premature death. The horror of the pandemic, and the prospect of stopping it, may shock them back to their senses.

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In the coming months, a lack of supply rather than a lack of demand is a bigger problem for governments organising vaccinations, says Jonathan Berman, author of “Anti-vaxxers: How to Challenge a Misinformed Movement”. Indeed, talking too much about vaccine refusal could provoke the very panic governments want to avoid.

Fringe views are more likely to spread when people lose trust in their leaders. So the most effective (figurative) vaccine against anti-vax nonsense would be for governments to roll out their actual covid-19 vaccination programmes as quickly and smoothly as possible, with a minimum of cock-ups. When elites do their jobs well, populists and cranks have less to froth about.

Editor’s note: Some of our covid-19 coverage is free for readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. For more stories and our pandemic tracker, see our hub

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline "Republic of cranks"

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Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/europe/2020/12/12/why-is-europe-so-riddled-with-vaccine-scepticism
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