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The COVID-19 vaccine and the perils of political advertising

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U.S. President-elect Joe Biden receives a COVID-19 vaccination at ChristianaCare Hospital in Newark, Delaware (image via YouTube)

Politicians are poorly positioned to encourage us to get the COVID-19 vaccine, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

PLACING POLITICIANS into roles as advertising personnel in product promotion is a risky matter. This is especially so in countries where the product in question comes with a lingering shadow of doubtful efficacy. Across the globe, leaders have promised that they will receive the COVID-19 vaccine of choice to ensure its safety. If we take it, you can as well, is the sentiment. 

The process also promises to be filmed –as if celluloid never lied – to reassure sceptics.

Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu was one of the first out of the box in receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine: 

“I asked to be vaccinated first, together with the Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, to serve as personal examples and encourage you to be vaccinated.” 

Such an event could not take place without a mild scent of corruption. Sheba Medical Centre nurse Shoshi Gomel, selected to give the coronavirus vaccine to the Israeli Prime Minister, had the syringe removed at the last minute by Netanyahu’s personal physician, Tzvi Herman Berkovitz.

Gomel explained to Israel’s Channel 12 news: 

“Even though [Dr Berkovitz] stood next to me and saw the dose, it is against the protocol of our hospital.”

The event was a shaky affair, filled with modest drama. The vial required determined, lengthy shaking.  Berkovitz moved to vaccinate Netanyahu via his left arm when the Prime Minister had been conspicuously baring his right arm. 

The confused physician duly corrected his course and that of the appropriated needle. “One small injection for a man,” came Netanyahu’s cringe-worthy cliché, “one giant leap for the health of us all". 

The giant leap did little to convince four Hebrew-language groups on Facebook, accused by the Israeli Justice Ministry of disseminating

“... deliberately mendacious content designed to mislead about coronavirus vaccines.”  

Facebook subsequently confirmed that these groups had been removed from the platform.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has gone on to keep Netanyahu company, similarly receiving a jab at a hospital in Newark, Delaware. 

He said, after receiving an injection of the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech product.

“I’m doing this to demonstrate that people should be prepared when it’s available to take the vaccine.  There’s nothing to worry about.”  

He had even declined the option to count to three before receiving the needle. Vice President Mike Pence, who also went with the live injection option, did so “to assure the American people that while we cut red tape, we cut no corners".  Splendidly reassuring.

In the United States, political endorsements of vaccines and vaccine programs are risky affairs. A good deal of this can be laid at the feet of incompetent management and execution, urged on by political figures. The Ford Administration’s effort to promote a mass vaccination programme against swine flu in 1976 gave us a lingering textbook example. 

With its origins at an army post at Ford Dix located in central New Jersey, there were fears that the newly discovered flu strain might precipitate another event of mass lethality. Its first victim was 19-year old U.S. Army Private David Lewis, who succumbed to pneumonia caused by influenza thirteen miles into a 50-mile hike through the snow of New Jersey. 

The fact that Lewis had been young, fit and healthy, caused consternation at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

The World Health Organisation preferred a cautious approach in monitoring the spread of the influenza strain that initially seemed to sport some semblance to the 1918 variant that reduced the global population by 100 million. The Ford Administration went for a speedy response. 

The U.S. Secretary of Health, F. David Matthewswarned

“The indication is that we will see a return of the 1918 flu virus that is the most virulent form of flu. The projections are that this virus will kill one million Americans in 1976.” 

In March that year, President Ford announced his administration’s intention to vaccinate “every man, woman, and child in the United States”.

By December, the vaccination program had been suspended. The effort had been a veritable disaster. The flu pandemic never eventuated. A mere 25% of the population had been inoculated. The vaccine resulted in cases of the rare neurological disease Guillain-Barré syndrome in 450 people of the 45 million vaccinated.

'The danger now,' concluded the New York Times at the time, 'is that the whole idea of preventive medicine may be discredited'.

Rebecca Kreston, writing for Discover, suggested that the:

'... government-led campaign was widely viewed as a debacle and put an irreparable dent in future public health initiatives, as well as negatively influenced the public’s perception of both the flu and the flu shot in this country.'

The lesson of 1976 has made little impression upon the U.S. political classes. On SiriusXM’s The Joe Madison Show, former President Barack Obama promised

“... that when [the vaccine’s] been made for people who are less at risk, I will be taking it.  I may end up taking it on TV or having it filmed, just so that people show that I trust this science.” 

Two other former presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, have done the same.

These endorsements will not encourage a population already confused and suspicious about government intentions. 

To be told, via television, to take a vaccine by a class of individuals who excel in mendacity, is a recipe for public relations suicide. 

Without perhaps realising it, the now-Vice President-elect Kamala Harris illustrated the problem by claiming that she would take a vaccine recommended by doctors and public health experts: 

“But if Donald Trump tells us that we should take it, I’m not taking it.” 

What Harris failed to realise is that a recommendation by Biden threatens to be equally self-defeating in encouraging a stampede for the needle.

As Sarah Kreps and Douglas L. Kriner argue

'An effective public-health strategy should incorporate what we are learning about the public attitudes toward the COVID-19 vaccine. And what we are learning clearly indicates that politics has no place in the vaccination process.' 

The authors’ solution: politicians should keep any endorsements or matters of ambition 'away from both the development and messaging surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine'. 

Sadly for them, that ship of noble sentiment sailed some time ago. 

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Cambridge Scholar and is an Independent Australia columnist and lecturer at RMIT University. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.

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