From top: Nurse Joan Love with the AstraZeneca jab at the HSE Vaccination Centre in the Aviva Stadium, Dublin; Heber Rowan
There are several vaccines being used to combat the COVID 19 pandemic. Their names will be fixed in our minds for years to come, like family houses in Game of Thronesm as they fight for control of the COVID virus.
This week the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was ‘paused’ in the USA and there has been concern raised about the AstraZeneca vaccine being harmful to roughly one in a million people from blood cloths. One in a million is a risk that generally, for most other medicines, is
determined as a reasonable one, because you have to weigh up the benefits. Ultimately asking, what serves more people than does harm?
Often cited at the moment is the higher risk of blood clots from birth control medication, people decide that it’s worth more to bear that risk than not have the use of it. The same goes for the vaccines. That said, the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) knew that in pausing the roll out of the AstraZeneca vaccine they would assuage the fears of those with concerns about such side effects. However as we consider the speed of the roll out program and the continued damage with the lockdowns: was that worth it?
People make decisions based on weighing up of risks. We have in society, a way of keeping to our risk equilibrium. The normal level of risk you accept in your day to day life.
As an example, it’s been found that if you drive without a seatbelt, statistically you will drive slower. If you know that seatbelts will reduce harm you might drive a little faster, because you work towards your risk equilibrium. You feel a sense of what’s the risk you can take and what you can’t. It’s different for many folks, Formula 1 drivers certainly have a different sense of what type of risk is OK for them and what’s not than you or I.
The issue is how risk is felt.
Simply knowing the factors that cause risk or danger is based on our exposure to awareness of that danger. If you wear a seatbelt you will find it more straightforward to figure out what the risk is of not wearing it actually is. That’s different to a new type of medicine made in extraordinary circumstances with cutting edge science. You have to rely on the trusted sources of information or experts to determine if taking them is a risk worth having.
And that is why in my opinion, the fear associated with the AstraZeneca vaccine is over the top. People are concerned that they might be the one in a million case that receives, a potentially lethal side effects. The media has grabbed on to a story that has interest and “legs to run on”. People want to know more about it.
The science is there. The risk is there too but it’s a remote one. Significantly less so than NOT taking it.
Attempting to reconcile why there is such a concern goes further though. It can be argued that the fallout from the much discredited link between autism and vaccines by Andrew Wakefield is a cause. People fear that they will be the unlucky ones because they hear more about the negative stories than they do about the humdrum stories of lives changed and improved by vaccines. It’s not perfect but it works.
People in fear will share their stories and others will share those stories because we find it easier to understand a story than scientific data. That’s why in conversations we will often talk about the lives of others than ideas or facts. People have stories and we are attuned to find them interesting because it’s easier to relate to.
An over abundance of caution.
Now I think we’re moving forward with an abundance of caution. Too much. This is not good because when it comes to dealing with working to speed, working as fast as possible to get a removal of the social distancing restrictions in society. It slows that down. Lives will be lost and damaged from the societal harms of seemingly never-ending lockdowns.
You have to be efficient and effective to make sure that treatment strategies work, knowing while it will not work for everyone, it will get things done where it counts. Reducing harm and saving lives.
Much of the debate about vaccines is also influenced by the humility that scientists working in their fields generally have. They know that they can often be wrong, that new evidence can end decades of a working hypothesis in an instant. So this is where we are at. A medicine held back because of too much caution.
As we can see with Israel’s relative end of COVID cases, life going back to a relative normal there. That matters and vaccines matter.
The lack of common sense
This week there has been a partial reopening of Ireland with schools back to relative normality and construction work picking up where it left off months ago.
This is welcome though with a look at recent debates on the Claire Bryne live show and on the radio, you’d wonder at the adage that “common sense isn’t common”.
Sam McConkey said recently that the restrictions could go on for 3-5 years. Crazy stuff in my opinion to even conceive of that.
Small businesses up and down Ireland are crying out for a return to normality and the idea of years of further restrictions is unconscionable. Click and collect services for instance are currently banned and while some pubs sell take away drinks, they are unable to allow patrons to use their bathrooms. Surely if it is deemed safe enough to sell take away drinks, it would be safe enough to allow for the use of bathrooms?
On Monday’s edition of Claire Byrne Live on RTÉ One the issue of Portaloos was discussed as a possible solution as we enter the warmer summer months. The matter of increased costs running such outdoor facilities was brushed over with no substantial analysis of current policy when it has been found that only 0.1% of cases are transmitted outdoors.
The brush with significant danger has passed by with the vaccine roll out assisting those most at risk. It’s time for a dose of common sense and less fear of making mistakes.
Let’s end the lockdown.
Heber Rowan is a Sligo native with a passion for politics. He works in public affairs and enjoys listening to and narrating audiobooks. He can be found on Twitter and occasionally blogs on Medium.com.