Anti-vaccine conspiracy theories have emerged in Mauritius. Within weeks, movements propagating these ideas, masquerading as freedom fighters, have erected hundreds of billboards around the island, taken lawsuits to court, gained thousands of followers, and inspired perhaps tenfold as many to cultivate doubts about the vaccine (1).
Local public figures have expressed their scepticism about everything from the efficacy of the vaccines to the government’s agenda in proffering it. Certain eminent newspapers promptly followed by publishing misleading articles and caricatures either downplaying the dangers of the virus or alluding to the side effects of the vaccines.
Far from an isolated incident, the emergence of the anti-vax movement forms part of a global rise of anti-science cults. In the same league are people who believe that climate change is a hoax, that 5G radiation is harmful to humans, and that masks are a method of control crafted by a hidden government of the world.
Aligning their agendas with the far-right, these cults often surface in times of crisis — a perpetual one, under neoliberalism — banking on simple answers that appeal to fervent emotion. Harbouring feelings of resentment, fear, and indignation, people will grab onto the alluring narratives those groups present, where some particular people or organizations, like the government, can take all the blame.
In this article, I will go through a few of the anti-vax theories and provide links to credible sources and empirical evidence that disprove them.
The virus exists, and it kills. That there is even a debate about this is a testament to the reach of the conspiracy theories. Only recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that the coronavirus caused an excess of over 3 million deaths in 2020 (2). No comparison can be made with the flu. In the USA, across the 2020/2021 flu season, Covid-19 caused 350000 deaths, compared to 646 deaths due to the flu (during the 2019/2020 period, the flu had killed between 24000 and 62000 Americans) (3).
The vaccines work. The multiple large-scale trials conducted have so far demonstrated that they decrease both the rate of infection and of transmission (4). For AstraZeneca and Sinopharm, the efficacy of the vaccines showed rates between 50% and 80%, with the latest trials tending towards the upper bound, and the decrease in rate of hospitalization was estimated to be a 100%. This means that, once someone takes their doses, they significantly scale down the risk that, if they have caught the virus, they will either develop a condition, mild or severe, or infect others.
The potency of the vaccines decreases in the face of variants, but they still protect from the virus. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) estimates that the efficacy of AstraZeneca and Sinopharm against variants is, respectively, between 35% and 74% and between 47% and 73% (5). Real world data has so far shown that AstraZeneca decrease hospitalizations from the Delta variant by 92% (6), while such information is yet unavailable for Sinopharm.
Six vaccines so far have been listed for the WHO Emergency Use Listing, which means that they have been subjected to rigorous, multi-stage testing and deemed safe (7). For Sinopharm, the WHO shows, of the near 6 million vaccinated people in China, less than a 100 severe side effects were reported (8). For AstraZeneca, the latest research has found that, in a population of 1 million, between 4 and 10 persons are at risk of developing blood clots after taking the vaccine (9).
There have been adverse reactions in cases, but when compared to the hundreds of millions of doses administered so far, these numbers are insignificant. As to long term dangers, history shows us that those are extremely rare. When severe side effects show up, they do so within the first few months (10).
The government is not trying to take control of the people through the vaccines. There is no chip within the shot that will make us more obedient. Providing healthcare during a time of crisis is not how repression works.
Mandating the vaccine
Expected to come into force by 21 June 2021, the amendments to the Quarantine Act will make it mandatory to either present a vaccination card or a negative PCR test to gain access to healthcare facilities and schools, effectively making it obligatory to take the vaccine for many. It was an unwise decision. A bullet handed to the anti-vax cult that they are using to work up their target audience, which may just yet prevent the country from ever reaching herd-immunity.
A mass sensibilization campaign, with a basis in clear facts, would have worked better.
The amendments highlight certain characteristics of our state, in that this is how things in Mauritius are done. The unilateral decision to mandate vaccination can and should be criticized, but should not be used to mobilize people — it leads to more vaccine reticence — when way more destructive and structural issues are on hand.
Conspiracy theorists do not rely on scientific evidence, but on anecdotes or obscure studies that haven’t yet been discredited as frauds. Peer-reviewed research is absent from their discourse. Pressing them for depth will yield nothing but more holes in their arguments.
That is not to say that we should trust everything put in print by a reputable source. For a long time, the majority of intellectuals — not scientists, not necessarily — have existed to serve the capitalist system. Some truths are not published, not allowed to be published. This fact should be at the back of our heads every time we read the papers, not to discount what we read as lies, but rather to understand the framework within which it is written, to take up the information presented and fact-check it with the works of other academics.
To conclude, the vaccine is the best way we can return to the pre-2020 situation. There are conspiracy theorists out there. Intentionally or not, they are spreading misinformation and endangering the well-being of society. Their solutions are not solutions, but distractions, paths to a worse situation all-round. To fight them is necessary, not by appealing to emotions but with hard evidence. For those who tread upon enough privilege to be able to research, it remains a responsibility to share fact-checked information — in the case of the vaccine, for the common good.