Anti-vax conspiracy theories are covid’s ticking time bomb

It is not just new strains of the coronavirus which are hampering Croydon’s public health efforts to reduce its spread, but also dangerous and deliberate misinformation from the United States

When a TikTok user filmed himself shouting “liar” at England’s chief medical officer in a London food market in February, the video gave a glimpse of the fevered covid conspiracies spreading among young people on social media.

On the march: far-right supporters and anti-vaxers gather outside Boxpark earlier this month

An anti-vaxers and anti-maskers march through Croydon at the start of this month was attended by some with links to the far-right and the QAnon movement in America, where covid conspiracies have been ladled into all kinds of Trumpian online urban myths.

As well as abusing and threatening public service workers and those simply queuing to get their own covid jab, the demonstrators distributed leaflets with wild and baseless claims – such as the covid vaccine can “magnetise” those receiving it.

Many on that march were from minority groups, either drawn by the rap music being blasted out by one of the event’s organisers, or perhaps convinced by some of the more lurid claims being made about the use of the vaccines.

Particularly in diverse parts of the capital, such as Croydon, the alarm has been raised about online misinformation which is fuelling intense mistrust and persuading Black and Asian minority ethnic – BAME – communities, already disproportionately affected by the virus, to shun the vaccine.

This is already having an impact. A study earlier this year by Nuffield Health found just 20.5per cent of black people had been vaccinated, compared with 42.5 per cent of white people.

Concerns: Dr Nnenna Osuji was Croydon Health Services NHS Trust’s deputy chief exec

When the Croydon BME Forum conducted a survey of its own in December last year, 59per cent said they were either undecided or were unlikely to take the vaccine.

Speaking about the north of Croydon, where more than 60per cent of people are from BAME communities, Dr Nnenna Osuji, when she was the medical director of Croydon NHS Trust, said: “Right now, this misinformation is costing lives.

“We know we’re not getting the same uptake across the entire population,” Dr Osuji said.

Hard-working staff at Mayday Hospital have been subject to visits from anti-vaxers, apparently intent of intimidating and dissuading others from receiving covid vaccines.

Videos have been circulated on social media purporting to show the hospital abandoned because of the virus. “The video showed empty corridors, as if this ‘proved’ something,” an NHS staffer said. “It only proved that our patients were in beds on their wards, receiving the care they needed.” The video was watched nearly 100,000 times on Instagram alone.

Schools, too, where vaccines are being made available to children with the consent of their parents or guardians, have also been targeted in a similar manner.

Some wild claims include that the virus has been created by a “New World Order” to scare people into taking the vaccine, which is falsely said to be an attempt to kill off large numbers to get the human population under control and protect natural resources. Those ranting along these lines never offer any evidence to support these beliefs.

These considered conspiracies are entirely untrue. But these false and dangerous opinions are finding new audiences.

“When we first did our survey, the word ‘culling’ kept coming up over and over again,” Ima Miah, the chief executive of the Asian Resource Centre Croydon, based on London Road, has said.

Getting a message across: ARCC’s Ima Miah

Language differences and cultural subtleties of interpretation have made the public health messaging more complicated.

For instance, the south Asian Silhetti community only communicate orally, not in writing. “How do you get literature across to an oral language?” Miah said.

“You don’t, you have to speak to them, you have to do videos.”

Part of the reason for the traction that the conspiracy theories are getting in BAME groups is because of long-standing grievances about racism and medical inequality. These long-held suspicions and distrust of a largely white Establishment have been stirred up over covid.

Lurid: Robert F Kennedy Jr at a rally earlier this year, addressing conspiracy enthusiasts and right-wing extremists

WhatsApp, which is encrypted and non-searchable, has presented particular problems for those who are trying to minimise the damaging impact of the misinformation. The Facebook-owned messaging service has imposed global restrictions on forwarding in efforts to restrict or slow the rate at which some messaging is shared and spread.

Phenomenons like the Trumpian QAnon movement demonstrate how even far-fetched ideas with no basis in reality can snowball online, eventually spiralling into violence.

The anti-vaccination content spreading in Britain also features distortions that weave together misinformation and truth, making it difficult to disentangle the two.

“This is a crisis driven by a very sophisticated bunch of actors, taking advantage of a moment in time, which they see as a great opportunity,” according to Imran Ahmed, the CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate.

Robert F Kennedy Jr, the nephew of President Kennedy, has become one of the most virulent anti-vaccine influencers online. His posts frequently falsely tell BAME groups they cannot trust the vaccine by referencing the Tuskegee syphilis study.

The 1932 medical study, where 399 African Americans with syphilis did not receive the correct treatment for the disease, has been transformed into an online rallying cry in both the US and Britain to persuade black people that the covid vaccines can’t be trusted.

There have also been myths about the ingredients not being not permissible in Muslim, Jewish and some Christian communities.

Medical experts stress the vaccine has already been consensually tested on people from a range of ethnicities and has been approved by regulators around the world.

Community worker: Croydon BAME Forum’s Andrew Brown

“The people at the very top, the anti-vaxers, they tailor their messages for specific communities… This is about the micro-targeting of messaging for communities to play on pre-existing concerns that they may have,” Ahmed said.

Some of the anti-vax propaganda has been shown to be particularly effective, in the sense of creating lingering doubts, among younger people and teens, who typically spend more of their time on social media.

“You have a lot of young people say covid is not real,” Andrew Brown, the CEO of the Croydon BME Forum, said.

Brown has even staged Zoom information sessions exclusively for the over-65s, so that younger people are unable to hijack the comments section to try to dissuade their elders from taking the vaccine.

Croydon’s other community groups, churches and mosques have also been mobilising against the misinformation, holding online Q&As with local doctors and sharing short videos to debunk false claims.

But the nature of their mission is that they are often playing catch-up, responding to the latest false rumour and made-up piece of quack science. With booster jabs available, the Delta variant still a dangerous threat and the new variant from South Africa spreading around the globe rapidly, medical professionals are urging everyone to calmly consider the real science and take advantage of the vaccine.

Read more: Health chief says covid vaccination is ‘more vital than ever’
Read more: Trump-like far-right create covid dangers on Croydon march
Read more: Three-quarters of iC readers say they will still wear masks

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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