Since the beginning of pandemic, the number of provinces and territories who have adopted mandatory mask policies has increased. Together they are trying to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and flatten the curve. However, some anti-masking groups and anti-vaccination groups are spreading misinformation on social media and in protests across Canada in cities such as Toronto and Montreal. These groups defend that they want to have the right to choose if they wear a mask and they don’t believe in the evidences of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Maya Goldenberg, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph specializing in vaccine hesitancy, underlines that there is no doubt that the arguments of both groups go against the scientific consensus. Goldenberg admits that some people could be hesitant about a COVID-19 vaccine, but even so it’s too early to draw conclusions because we still don’t have a vaccine to fight COVID-19. When the researches discover the vaccine, we will have “scientific evidence or communications to consider”.
Milénio Stadium: Thanks to vaccination, there has been a drastic drop in the incidence of diseases such as whooping cough, measles, polio and rubella that used to kill thousands of people every year. But even though they are in control today, they can quickly become an epidemic again if people stop vaccination. Can you please explain to us why is so important to be vaccinated?
Maya Goldenberg: Vaccination is our best defense to protect ourselves and our communities against serious infectious diseases.
MS: Anti-masking groups are joining forces with anti-vaccination groups to amplify their message. Why this is so dangerous and how are they influencing the opinion of so many people?
MG: Both anti-mask and vaccine-sceptical groups are working against the scientific consensus on public health responses to infectious disease outbreaks. They are influencing public opinion by challenging the consensus view that the interventions (vaccines, masks) work, are safe, and are necessary. They might point to minority opinions within the scientific community about the safety and efficacy of the interventions, minimize the risks associated with the diseases that vaccines and masks are supposed to protect us against, and question the credibility of the scientific experts. These views strike a chord with people who are fearful and uncertain about the complexity of COVID-19 or vaccine-preventable diseases like measles and influenza. These views also resonate with people who do not think that public institutions work in the public interest (as opposed to corporate or other power interests).
MS: In your next book you will talk about Vaccine Hesitancy. Some polls suggest that some people won’t take the COVID-19 vaccine. Is it different because we are dealing with a new virus?
MG: We can expect a fair degree of hesitancy around the COVID-19 vaccine because it hasn’t been developed yet. There is no reason to be confident about the safety and efficacy of a vaccine this early; there is no scientific evidence or communications to consider yet. Some people are willing to see how the vaccine development will go, and will then decide, while others are convinced that the speed at which the vaccine is being developed will lead to weaker safety checks. Public health and government will have to make sure that safety checks are still in place even as the research is expedited and distribution is rushed. The comprehensiveness and rigour of the safety tests will have to be communicated to the public effectively.
MS: What do you think about the Russian vaccine? The Russian government said that the vaccine will be given first to healthcare workers and teachers. The Canadian government has reserved the rights to purchase vaccines. Who will be the priority groups?
MG: The vaccine announced by Russia is clouded in secrecy. It is still unclear that there IS a vaccine (it might just be bluster), and if there is one, it is questionable whether the newly approved vaccine was properly tested in clinical trials. The Canadian government has reserved the rights to purchase vaccines. The priority will be given to healthcare workers, teachers, elderly people, and people with co-morbidities that make them very vulnerable to serious outcomes if they contract COVID-19. Once the more at-risk people have access to vaccines, the vaccine will become available to the wider public.
MS: Even with a vaccine, Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said recently that we will have to live with masks and social distance at least two or three years. If some people decide that they don’t have to use the mask, that can compromise the efforts to flatten the curve?
MG: Masks do not compromise herd immunity, but not wearing masks puts communities at risk of infectious disease outbreaks. Masks are not perfect defenses against COVID-19 but help to reduce the spread of the virus when people are indoors and when people cannot maintain sufficient physical distance.
MS: Considering that we are dealing with something really dangerous and new, should masks and vaccines be mandatory instead of optional?
MG: Mandates need to be exercised with care because they can polarize the public health intervention in question. Some people who are OK with masks, or with vaccines, don’t like government forcing them to do things. The minimal government intervention needed to enact the desirable outcome (like widespread mask use) is preferable. Persuasion is gentler than enforcement and should be the first measure before mandates are considered.
MS: A quick look at the vaccination rates among G7 countries shows that Canada is not meeting any of its vaccination coverage goals, which were updated in 2017. How can we change these numbers? Do we need a new Public Health Strategy to address this skepticism?
MG: There are many good public health strategies available that attend to the needs and concerns of the public. Public health infrastructure needs to be well funded and supported so that effective strategies can be put in place and maintained. Public health measures must be comprehensive, scientifically informed, communicated well, and equitable.