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Opinion

How do we reach the anti-vaxxers?

A grief-stricken poem drives home the human cost of the coronavirus pandemic, leading Paul McNamee to ask how we can get anti-vaxxers to think again.

If you have time, read Up Late, by Nick Laird. And if you do, take a seat first. Maybe grab some tissues. You’ll need them.

Laird is a Northern Irish writer and poet. He’s one of the best to come out of Ireland for years. With Up Late, he becomes a great one. It’s a poem about the death of his father Alastair who died from Covid in March. Up Late was published last week.

Gently, and not so gently, Laird details the death and the grief, his father “clawing at the mask and exhausted” as the final hours come. He writes of the separation, of his widowed father stricken, alone in a ward, connected only by a Zoom call. It is, he says simply, a terrible disease.

You can never tell where the thing that knocks you sideways will come from. Which is probably how it manages to knock you sideways. The toll of death from Covid, and the families devastated, have been a constant with us since March last year. And yet somehow it is a poem that punches through.

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I discovered Up Late the same day those balloons tried to storm the BBC in London to teach the BBC what’s what about the Covid lie and the big pharma vaccine conspiracy. Patience for them is stretched rather. The national schadenfreude felt when we discovered the operational wise guys had stormed the wrong building rippled for awhile.

But so does anger at those “truth-telling” foot soldiers. It takes a certain kind of privileged arrogance to be so convinced you know things experts don’t – about something that saves lives – that you feel entitled to invade a news organisation to hammer home your point. All this happens as the debate still rages about how to get the vaccine in big volumes to developing nations.

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Vaccine reluctance can be met with positive information. That is hard when Russian anti-vax troll farms are peddling misinformation on a global scale. It’s not clear if the I Am Legend anti-vax conspiracy that gripped last week, suggesting vaccinations turned recipients into zombies, was birthed from one of those accounts. But the fact that it gained traction at all illustrates the scale of the problem. Some people prefer to believe outlandish things.

The story of Francis Goncalves’ family was another horrible tragedy. His family were wiped out when they refused the vaccine, falling victim, Goncalves said, to anti-vax misinformation and conspiracy. Will his story move any waverers enough to change their minds? Possibly? Will Nick Laird’s Up Late? I hope so. If nothing else, people will discover a great piece of literature.

As of last week, more than 75 per cent of adults in Britain were double-vaxxed. It means the anti-vaxxers are small in number but, clearly, they exist and they are loud. The vaccination of children becomes the next battle line. While I try to be open to argument I cannot rationalise any opposition to something that protects the health of children. It’s going to be a bumpy few weeks.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue

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