“You cannot reason people out of a position that they did not reason themselves into." — Dr. Ben Goldacre
Last month, Newfoundland and Labrador health officials repeated their plea to residents not to fall down a social media rabbit hole of lies when it comes to COVID-19 and vaccines.
“Misinformation is among the top reasons for vaccine hesitancy, and in the age of social media, misinformation is abundant, highly accessible and even convincing,” Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said during a COVID-19 briefing.
Health Minister John Haggie has decried online hoaxes and half-truths since the beginning of the pandemic.
Anti-vaccination — or “anti-vax” — misinformation has reached a fever pitch in recent months as businesses and government institutions have started implementing mandatory vaccine policies.
While you may think it’s spread by nameless gnomes, bathed in computer screen light while they sit in dark basements, the truth is it is often spouted by otherwise prominent and successful members of society.
Former Newfoundland premier Brian Peckford runs a blog from his home in British Columbia that’s awash in anti-scientific conspiracies and medical misinformation.
The theme throughout is one of truth being oppressed by a cabal of government and corporations.
“This is the kind of information Big Pharma and the corporate media are trying to suppress,” reads a line from one of the guest posts on his site. The sentiment runs through many of the posts.
One of the most recent posts, titled “Tragedy in Alberta, a Courageous Doctor Speaks Out,” cites a speech in Vancouver given by a physician during the September anniversary of the Nuremberg Code.
The doctor describes how he was allegedly booted out of an emergency ward near Red Deer, Alta. for giving the anti-parasite medication ivermectin to struggling COVID-19 patients. The doctor reports that two of three patients he gave it to eventually improved.
A few blog readers questioned the truth of the story — which Peckford and his fans vehemently defended — but lost in the debate was why a doctor administering an unapproved drug in a Canadian hospital would be considered a hero.
Nor did the irony of giving a speech about it during a celebration of the Nuremberg Code — an international doctrine against conducting unethical experiments on humans — seem to register.
Ivermectin has caused no end of grief in the United States, where rumours of its effectiveness against COVID-19 have caused emergency room visits by people who have ingested doses meant for horses and livestock.
There is still no firm evidence the drug actually works against the coronavirus.
“Based on the current very low‐ to low‐certainty evidence, we are uncertain about the efficacy and safety of ivermectin used to treat or prevent COVID‐19,” the authors of a July 2021 Cochrane study of several clinical trials. “The completed studies are small and few are considered high quality.”
Cochrane studies are considered the gold standard of systemic reviews of existing research.
One large study, supervised by McMaster University in Hamilton and conducted in Brazil, was shut down in August because no discernible benefit was detected.
Peckford was asked to discuss the post with The Telegram but declined, other than to say he doesn’t consider it to be propaganda.
Ivermectin, like other dubious or untested treatments, has become a focus for anti-vax sentiment because it serves as an alternative to vaccination.
So, too, has a database known as the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), a U.S. registry that contains every reported negative event that occurred after a vaccination.
Founded in the 1970s to provide transparency in the evaluation of vaccine safety, VAERS has been frequently abused by anti-vaxxers to shock the public into thinking the worst.
“One of VAERS’s strengths—its openness—is also a potential weakness in the politicized COVID-19 era,” wrote Meredith Wadman in the May 2021 issue of the journal Science.
“Anyone who receives a vaccine authorized in the United States can report an adverse event to VAERS, as can doctors, family members, and others. That openness ensures VAERS receives plentiful reports — 228,000 for COVID-19 vaccines alone since December 2020, more than four times the number received in all of last year for all vaccines.”
The problem is that the database itself does not establish whether all reported events were actually caused by the vaccine. Most are simply coincidental.
“People may misinterpret VAERS, which is easily searchable, as a catalogue of actual side effects, rather than possible or suspected ones,” wrote Wadman. “And it’s easy to pull data out of context.”
In other words, you may have a heart attack after getting a vaccine, but you were probably going to have one anyway.
The “VAERS scare” is one of the narratives posted on the website of another anti-vaccine warrior with local connections, Marjorie Clarke.
Clarke, the owner and founder of Tru Salon Suites in St. John’s and Mount Pearl, goes by Marjorie Gervais on the social media site and frequently shares anti-vaccine misinformation.
Last week, a list surfaced on her site that showed close to 30 businesses in Newfoundland and Labrador which were allegedly willing to defy any vaccine passport system that would mandate they check the status of patrons.
The province’s system is scheduled to be rolled out Thursday.
The list was apparently also posted on NL Business Against Health Passes, a private Facebook group with more than 800 members that’s administered by Clarke and local People’s Party of Canada candidate Dana Metcalfe.
Well over half of the businesses on the list are hair and nail salons, along with a handful that specialize in herbal and alternative medicine. There are two automotive garages and a couple of construction companies.
Not all of these businesses would be required by law to use the passport system, since essential businesses such as retail stores and health services are expected to be exempt.
But a few dine-in eateries also on the list would not be exempt.
The Telegram reached out to two of the latter businesses. One didn’t reply, but a person who responded via iMessenger for one well-known establishment seemed to be surprised. They did not want to comment, but did express gratitude for being notified and said they would be contacting the person who posted it.
Within 24 hours, the list disappeared from Clarke’s page.
Because The Telegram could not adequately verify the stance of any of the businesses on the issue, it is not naming them.
But Clarke did reply to questions through iMessenger.
“I’m not really interested in the media twisting my words to suit the official narrative,” she wrote.
When asked what her position meant for personal service providers who used her facilities, she replied, “I have no comment, other than to say the tenants at Tru Salon Suites are independent business owners and you would have to ask them individually how they will be dealing with any mandate.”
For her part, Metcalfe says she’s not anti-vaccine but believes the choice not to be vaccinated shouldn’t put one’s employment in jeopardy or mean being excluded from public events.
Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram