Pop culture has long ridiculed the absurdity of anti-vaxxers, painting a humorous stereotype of unhinged parents clinging on to conspiracy theories and scepticism. Their objections to vaccinations can be catastrophic for their children and communities, and their reasoning and anti-science attitudes seem laughable. They are seen as an easy target for satire and scapegoating. This ongoing pandemic has brought out a similar group of skeptics and internet sleuthers, the anti-maskers.
Anti-maskers are opposed to mandatory mask laws and often skeptical of the scope and nature of the Coronavirus in how the media covers the issue.They argue that the requirement to wear a mask is an infringement on their personal liberty, and potentially dangerous to their own health. While the majority of people and health professionals have come to a consensus that masks are necessary and crucial for safety, anti-maskers have their own hesitations. And a related population of people continue to believe that the Coronavirus is a hoax created to control the general public. This distrust in the scientific community, and public health officials, is a brewing crisis for public health.
Scrolling through my social media channels, I see memes making fun of anti-maskers and far-right conspiracy theorists. These people are labeled as dumb, stupid, irresponsible or crazy. At face value, these labels seem accurate. But do they tell the complete story of misinformation? This skepticism of scientific reasoning is a universal struggle at both the national level, and at personal provider-patient interactions. There is a stark difference between the information a provider has and what a patient may have. Common misconceptions constantly have to be debunked, for all of us. Household myths persist in our daily lives, even though science has soundly proven them to be bogus.
It doesn’t help that Covid-19 information from the World Health Organization (WHO) has been conflicting or confusing at times, as scientists continue to develop new knowledge. The science-to-media-to-people pipeline is leaky and often fails to fully convey messages. In early June, the WHO spokesperson Van Kerkhove made a comment that asymptomatic carriers “very rarely” could pass the disease to others. Kerkhove later clarified that they did not have sufficient information on truly asymptomatic cases, but that many people who did not feel symptoms (whether a mild case or in the presymptomatic stage) could absolutely spread the disease. Headlines across social media did not express the nuances of the argument, portraying the incident as the WHO “backtracking” on their previous statement.
In early April, the WHO released guidance that non-healthcare professionals and healthy people should not be using medical grade masks. There was a large concern that people would buy-out N-95s meant for medical professionals, as well as other PPE. There was also not sufficient evidence on the effectiveness of cloth masks at the time. The general public, including me, at that time only heard that masks were not very effective at keeping yourself protected from infection. The guidance from the WHO was made strategically to ensure that there were enough N-95 masks, but the subsequent media cycle created unexpected consequences. A nuanced topic was disseminated to the public before the scientific community had time to reach an organized message.
Scientific information is constantly changing and updating itself, as more researchers repeat experiments and build off each other’s works. This is effective in improving upon our guidelines and body of knowledge. However, for some, these ever changing revelations of science can cause confusion and distrust. Scientific findings and research papers are often complex and require background knowledge to fully understand. Since most people do not have this background, press releases and statements from the scientific community are carefully created to tell people only what they need to do and need to know. Our scientific institutions and leaders assume that people will believe them, because of the respect they have within academia. But what happens when the people outside of academia don’t believe them?
I have a decent amount of what I like to call “blind, informed trust” in scientific institutions. When an organization like the WHO or CDC releases guidance on Covid-19 or another health issue, I will follow it. I don’t feel the need to look at their sources. This is mainly because I understand the scientific processes that they use, the rigor in which research takes place and the structure of these organizations. I trust scientific institutions because I work and study at one, and am immersed in the world of academia. This makes processing new findings easier for me, and allows me to be confident in the information I consume. Not everyone has this luxury.
The majority of people in the U.S. are not affiliated with an academic institution, nor do they have access to the infinite scope of resources we do. If I had an inquiry on a certain research paper on mask-wearing and Covid-19, I could look up that study in an academic journal and read it for myself. Most scientific papers are not accessible to the public in this way, blocked by paywalls and registrations. Just like our elite universities, scientific knowledge is exclusive. Even reputable news sources now have paywalls, keeping unbiased information hidden from the public. Social media allows misinformation and non fact-checked information to spread much quicker, as those platforms are free and easily accessible.
A unifying issue between anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers and conspiracy theorists is an inherent distrust in scientific institutions. Instead of mocking this distrust and fear, we should try to address it. Many of us studying policy at Duke would agree that our healthcare systems fail many Americans on a daily basis. It’s understandable that people would be skeptical of a medical system that sends cancer patients into bankruptcy and bills thousands of dollars for a simple E.R. visit. It’s also important to recognize that anti-maskers may have placed their trust in other institutions, of local or state politicians. In late April, Mike Pence notably visited patients in the Mayo Clinic while not wearing a face mask. In that time, the sitting President was not wearing face masks for press releases or public appearances. We should ease off blaming anti-maskers for being misled or misinformed, and focus on the disconnect that exists between science and the public, at the fault of our leaders.
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused an immense amount of pain, fear and disappointment in the institutions that many of us trusted at one point in our lives. Instead of mocking this fear and skepticism, we need to look at where it comes from. And for members of academic institutions, we need to examine our own failures in creating lasting trust.
Nathan Heffernan is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.
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