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Vaccine scepticism: Words can harm us

By now we’re all familiar with the idea that many people, including 47% of South Africans, if one survey is right, are sceptical about taking a Covid-19 vaccine.  But there is another kind of vaccine scepticism pervading our news media at the moment: scepticism that sufficient quantities of the vaccine to get us towards herd immunity will even materialise in 2021.

This scepticism is so strong that in my database of the top daily online news articles from IOL, News24 and TimesLive in January, one of the words that showed the strongest statistical association with “vaccine” was “unlikely”.  News24 reported on 5 January that Wits University School of Governance Adjunct Professor Alex van den Heever had said that “because South Africa had not entered into any bilateral agreements with vaccine

distributors, it is unlikely that the country will have a steady stream of vaccines this year”.

Of course, any time you see the word “unlikely”, a prediction is being made, which may turn out to be true or not depending on what happens in the future. Since the beginning of January, multiple deals to provide vaccines have been announced, and were summarised in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s speech to the nation on 1 February. 

But there is still little clarity on when these will arrive, and news outlets have published numerous articles pointing to the government’s apparent slips, fumbles and procrastination in securing the life-saving vaccines.  News24 has published a series of stinging investigative exposés on the perceived shortcomings in the department of health’s delays in negotiating deals with vaccine makers. (Incidentally, the word “makers” shows a strong association with “vaccine” in January’s news because of the repeated use of the phrase “vaccine makers”.)

The confrontational nature of these exposés comes across in another seemingly nondescript word, “furthermore”.  This word appeared five times near the words “vaccine” and “vaccinate” in the January news.  Here’s an example: “Furthermore, not a single vaccine has been registered with the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra), despite two vaccine trials taking place in the country.” This was also from 5 January.  Since then, Sahpra has approved the AstraZeneca vaccine which arrived in the country on 1 February.

It also appeared more recently on 21 January in the statement: “Furthermore, the plan for the vaccine distribution and rollout is still not complete, which is very worrying,” given by Dr Jeremy Nel, a member of the ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19.

“Furthermore” is a word used to add one piece of evidence to another.  It can also compound emotional responses as depressing facts are piled on each other.  It shows that these facts are not simply being told as they are, but shaped into an argument for something, in this case, the idea that the government has been incompetent in the massive task of procuring vaccines and planning to vaccinate most South Africans.

In addition to this, reporting on the vaccines often seems to have emphasised the helplessness of everyday South Africans in the face of the delays in the vaccine rollout.  The people with real power to do anything about the situation, according to this reporting, are government, the big pharmaceutical companies who are the “vaccine makers”, and a few small and secretive committees.  The word “manufacture” appears frequently near to “vaccine” in the news, including in a statement by Health Justice Initiative founder Fatima Hassan that “pharmaceutical companies could have given data to local companies to manufacture vaccines but chose not to”, leaving all the power in the hands of a few multinational corporations whom she accuses of “playing God”.

“Import” also appears with “vaccine” because of the news early in January that individual South Africans will not be able to import their own vaccines, even if they have the money to do so.

Lastly, the word “chaired” shows a strong association with the word “vaccine” because of references to two powerful committees: a national vaccine co-ordinating committee chaired by two health department officials, Dr Sandile Buthelezi and Dr Lesley Bamford; and the ministerial advisory committee on vaccines, chaired by Dr Barry Schoub.  On top of these, there is the interministerial committee on vaccines, which the president picked David Mabuza to chair, much to the ire of all who have seen Mabuza do very little at all over the past year.

In reading January’s news, all of this combined, at least in my mind, creates a deep impression of helplessness and hopelessness.  The take-home message seems to be: “South Africa is doomed to languish without vaccines for ages, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Now don’t get me wrong: investigative reporting is very necessary, and we have the right to know about government shortcomings so that we can hold government to account for them.  But I wonder how productive all this helplessness and hopelessness is for constructive discussions about the vaccine among everyday South Africans?

For one thing, scepticism about the government’s ability to provide vaccines on time is only one step away from cynicism, radical distrust of anything the government says.  And it is exactly such radical distrust in the messages sent from governments and the medical establishment that is fuelling the more conventional kind of vaccine scepticism, as well as backlashes against Covid-19 safety measures everywhere.

Furthermore (I can use that word too), there are things we as ordinary citizens can do in the race to prepare for the vaccine.  Probably the most important of those is to spread the truth about the vaccines’ safety and efficacy and combat the deluge of fake news about the vaccines that pours into our social media feeds and conversations every day.  By doing so, we can push up that percentage of South Africans who are willing to take the vaccine when it comes, and can hopefully get closer to herd immunity more quickly. 

There are several good public awareness campaigns that have produced easy-to-read brochures with facts about the vaccine that can easily be shared on social media.  A good example in the religious sphere is Church in Action, a project supported by the South African Council of Churches and the Solidarity Fund. We can, and should, also support the groups pushing for greater transparency about government’s vaccine rollout plans, like the Health Justice Initiative.  We have some agency in discussions about the vaccine happening all around us; let’s use it!

Author

  • Ian Siebörger is a senior lecturer in Linguistics at Rhodes University, specializing in discourse analysis, particularly the analysis of media and political discourses. His PhD, completed in 2018, is on the positioning of political parties in the Daily Sun's reporting. In his research he focuses on how emotive and evaluative language is used in the media to associate different ideas with particular people and organisations, shaping the opinions and knowledge that everyday citizens have about what is happening in South Africa's political landscape.

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