A trust deficit may be driving low vaccine uptake and conspiracy theories in some European countries. It is within politicians' power to mitigate this, writes Péter Krekó of the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute
Lockdowns, restrictions and public health measures have divided western societies. Even in European countries where vaccination rates are remarkably high, such as Spain (80 per cent fully vaccinated), Italy (75 per cent), France (73 per cent), Germany (71 per cent) and the UK (70 per cent) – hostility towards doctors and the medical profession has grown over the past two years. Weariness, a loss of liberty, and, in some cases, the instrumentalization of COVID-19 by national governments has tested patience - and laid fertile ground for pseudo-science.
Concerning trends in under-vaccinated countries
Despite the pressures, confidence in expert opinion has so far held up across much of Europe. A Eurobarometer poll conducted last year found remarkably high levels of confidence in scientific opinion. A statement issued by the European Commission shortly after the poll’s publication cheerfully announced: “Nine in 10 EU citizens think that the overall influence of science and technology is positive” and that Europe’s citizens invariably see scientists and their characteristics, including intelligence (89 per cent), reliability (68 per cent) and being collaborative (66 per cent), in a positive light.
More than two thirds (68%) of respondents in the same poll also stated that scientists should be free to intervene in political debates to ensure decisions are underpinned with evidence. This has certainly been the case in many European countries, where chief medical officers and scientific advisers to national governments have emerged from obscurity to become a daily source of information.
This data and the results of other surveys conducted the past two years, would suggest that all is well. But is it really?
In the poll described above, one can also identify a troubling undercurrent of doubt, particularly in countries where vaccine uptake remains catastrophically low, including in Slovakia (48 per cent), Romania (41 per cent), and Bulgaria (28 per cent). For example, it found that 28 per cent of Europeans believe that the novel coronavirus was produced and released from a secret laboratory as part of a global effort to control our freedoms.
It also found that one in four (26 per cent) believe a cure to one of the world’s biggest killers, cancer, is already in existence. This constituency of opinion, while in the minority, is not just concentrated in countries where institutional scepticism has established roots, but also in Western and northern European nations, where confidence in institutions is typically strong.
Education deficit may play a role in COVID-denialism
During the pandemic, a fertile space for denialism and 'alternative facts' has emerged. Misinformation, cast as 'the truth', is now widely shared online. Government missteps and COVID-borne corruption charges have chipped away at the credibility of once-reliable sources. And in some cases, the instrumentalization of the virus for political purposes has fractured the coalitions of togetherness that was felt in 2020. In this climate, where science literacy is already at low ebb, the judgements of some of our brightest scientific minds are no longer seen as impartial.
Some of this is predictable. After all, public health measures and responses are driven largely by scientific data, which few of us can easily grasp. This deficit in literacy provides a space for pseudo-science and vaccine hesitancy to cut through.
The Eurobarometer poll makes this clear. In order to complete this survey, respondents were asked to take a ‘quiz’ comprising eleven scientific statements, from the effect of antibiotics on viruses and bacteria to the origins of global warming and the nature of lasers.
Researchers then calculated an ‘accuracy score’ from these responses and found that in countries such as Romania and Bulgaria only two and four per cent of respondents could give at least eight correct responses, while the ratio stood at above 40 per cent in countries such as Belgium, Sweden, Ireland, and Luxembourg. This disparity mirrors vaccine uptake, in many cases, and suggests there is a trust and educational disparity in many parts of Europe. This is, of course, concerning – but how can we arrest it while safeguarding coalitions for the public good?
Antidote will take more than public health messaging
It would be welcome, first, to see politicians being straight with the European public. Early false predictions, the frequent citing of gloom-laden -- and, in many cases discredited -- modelling, and the politicisation of public health, continue to undermine trust. Admitting they do not know at this point, or prefacing their statements as based on current knowledge, would help to recalibrate expectations and shield scientific advisors from danger.
It would also be beneficial to see more humility and generosity in the geopolitics of vaccines. While Western politicians are chasing citizens with third and fourth doses, access continues to be scarce in large parts of the developing world. A more even distribution of vaccines would make deadly variants less likely to emerge on the peripheries and create further cycles of avoidable chaos. It would also dispel some of the myths regarding Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca’s motives.
Such action would harden the credibility and ambitions of not only our state institutions but the involvement of private providers in the context of the pandemic, and, in turn, erode the many inaccurate, often swindler-like, charges of the pseudoscientific community.
After almost three years of COVID impacting our lives on a daily basis, we are now approaching one of the most crucial junctures of the pandemic. We have treatments at scale for use across the globe, and we can see an exit point from this crisis and a restoration of our liberties. It’s vital, as we move towards this state, that national governments take their populations with them. Acting honestly, in line with scientific opinion, without feeling compelled to provide misplaced certainty, is the best way to hold this coalition together.
Péter Krekó is the director of Political Capital Institute, a think-tank based in Budapest, Hungary. He is a Europe’s Futures Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM). For further reading, a roughly 3,000-word piece on this subject was published by Mr Krekó with Eurozine.