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Vaccine hesitancy is a real problem we need real answers to. Muzzling debate is not one of them

OPINION

Vaccines save lives. Of this there is no question. On Friday, the Mail & Guardian published an opinion piece written, not by an expert, a doctor or a scientist, but by an ordinary South African pointing out his — and many others’ — reasons for being hesitant to take the Covid-19 vaccine.

The Mail & Guardian has extensively reported on the pandemic from day one. We have spoken to countless experts on the matter and we wholeheartedly support their call for as many people as possible to be vaccinated. We believe it is a country imperative.

On 14 May our front page was headlined: “Don’t hesitate, vaccinate”.

Vaccine hesitancy is a real concern for our country’s recovery from this virus. It has been fed and fuelled by countless conspiracy theories and fake information. We have also  covered these extensively – to debunk the conspiracies and to counter the reach of fake information. It is our duty to inform the public. This week’s edition focused on a future where we reach herd immunity, the difficulties in reaching that stage and what life could look like when we are there.

But, it is also our duty to listen to people and allow them to be heard. Sometimes in their own words. We may not always agree and their views do not necessarily reflect ours, but they are entitled to their expression.

The reality is that there are many citizens, well-read and well-educated, some even in the medical field, who are still wary of taking the vaccine – and some of those reasons are not just the irrational fear of “being microchipped” or being controlled by nefarious powers or that they are necessarily part of an anti-vaxxer campaign. Some of those fears are driven by the perceived agendas of big pharma. Others are created by the often mixed messaging emerging from leading medical institutions.

Some of those fears are driven by the perceived agendas of big pharma. Others are created by the often mixed messaging emerging from leading medical institutions.

The reason we decided to publish the opinion piece was to start a conversation, to bring to light the way an ordinary person is thinking and viewing the Covid-19 vaccination. It is easy to dismiss them because they aren’t experts, but we would rather their fears were heard and properly addressed. 

It is important that this discussion happens now rather than later when we can’t reach herd immunity because there is an insufficient percentage of the population who have chosen to protect themselves against the debilitating effects of the Covid-19 virus. We must have the conversation so the messaging to take the vaccine is right and targeted and sufficiently allays these fears and concerns. 

Though the opinion piece published has started a conversation, it is not in the way we had hoped and expected. Instead the Mail & Guardian has received a backlash for giving a platform to these views. Many called for it to be taken down and for us to apologise. But what would that achieve except to build further conspiracy theories in dimly lit echo chambers, insulated from rebuttal?

What we would have preferred was a rebuttal and proper engagement on the opinion piece, pointing out what was wrong and how the writer’s fears could be allayed.

We will publish rebuttals in the coming weeks and welcome the commentators who have criticised the Mail & Guardian over the past weekend. We will endeavour to do so, in the hope that the issues the opinion piece raised will be properly addressed and we can change at least one person’s mind to do what is best for everyone and ensure we reach herd immunity, the vaccination of 42-million people.

Ron Derby
Editor-in-Chief

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