Every cloud: How Covid has turned the tide on anti-vaxxers

Despite myriad advances in science and medicine there remains a hard core of people who are still steadfast in refusing vaccinations, says John Dolan
Every cloud: How Covid has turned the tide on anti-vaxxers

The good news is that the Covid-19 pandemic appears to have prompted a sea change in our attitude to vaccinations, says John Dolan.

MY absolute all-time sporting hero was Bert Trautmann, a German goalkeeper for the club I support, Manchester City — even though I never got to see him play.

A Nazi in World War II, he became a goalkeeper while he was a Prisoner-of-War, and is best known for bravely making a save late in the 1956 FA Cup Final that broke his neck. Not realising the extent of his injury, he played on to the end as City won 3-1.

I only found this out recently, but the right-back for the opposition, Birmingham City, that day was a guy called Jeff Hall.

It is a tragic story, but Hall was to play an unwitting role in popularising the roll-out of vaccinations in England.

A few years after that cup final, in March, 1959, Hall, who won 17 caps for England, played a match for Birmingham City away to Portsmouth. He fell ill two days later, was admitted to hospital, and diagnosed with polio.

The disease was very serious at the time — there had been a famous outbreak in Cork city a few years earlier — and although a vaccine was available, people were wary, and slow to take it up.

TRAGIC: Soccer star Jeff Hall died of polio in 1959 aged 29.
TRAGIC: Soccer star Jeff Hall died of polio in 1959 aged 29.

Over the next 12 days, the condition of Hall, a fit and healthy 29-year-old, deteriorated; he became paralysed, lost his speech, then died, of polio.

The tragedy stunned the sporting world. Hall’s widow, Dawn, who was just 22 at the time, spoke on television about her loss, and demand for the polio vaccine rocketed. Emergency clinics had to be set up to cope with the surge and extra supplies of the vaccine were flown in from the U.S.

Soccer was then a predominantly working class sport, and the message got through to the terraces at matches and in the dance-halls of the day. That message was stark: Whatever fears you may have had about the vaccine, the alternative could be ending up like Jeff Hall.

To many, Hall was a posthumous hero. How many lives he saved in death is impossible to calculate, but save lives he assuredly did.

More than 70 years later, and despite myriad advances in science and medicine since then, there remain a hard core of people who are still steadfast in refusing vaccinations.

Note there is a difference here between natural enough feelings of wariness and perhaps a fear of needles, and the type of ‘anti-vaxxer’ conspiracy theorist garbage you see on the internet, fed by a hysteria which itself transmits like a virus.

‘Over my dead body’ this cohort will declare at the sight of a jab... not realising it may well come to that.

The good news is that the Covid-19 pandemic appears to have prompted a sea change in our attitude to vaccinations.

The sad news is that it had to take almost 3,000 deaths — 3,000 Jeff Halls — in this country to change the minds of some of the hard-core opponents. But change their minds they have, and that can only be good news for the roll-out of the vaccination programme in this country.

The statistics make for interesting reading.

At the start of last October, when it’s fair to say there were concerns about vaccines being rushed out without sufficient checks taking place, an RTÉ poll found just 56% said it was likely they would take it, while a sizeable 32% said they would be unlikely to take the vaccine.

Experts say up to 70% of the population needs to be vaccinated for Covid-19 to be eradicated.
Experts say up to 70% of the population needs to be vaccinated for Covid-19 to be eradicated.

By the end of October, there were signs of a shift in attitudes.

A similar number said in an Irish Times poll they would take the vaccine, but just 12% said they would not take it. A third, though, were unsure.

By the end of November, when there was good news almost daily about the success of the imminent vaccines, there was a further shift.

Now, 74% of Irish people told a Sunday Business Post survey they would take the vaccine.

Interestingly, the poll went further and found the majority of people even supported mandatory vaccination for students and those attending sporting events.

These are sizeable leaps in a very short space of time. Imagine a political party’s support increasing from 56% to 74% in a matter of weeks, and you get a sense of the seismic shift. It’s hugely significant, too, as experts say up to 70% of the population needs to be vaccinated for Covid-19 to be eradicated. Ireland now surpasses that threshold.

Clearly, the prospect of a vaccine that would remove the threat to your life and the lives of those around you, and the prospect of being able to live a normal life — go to work, for a pint, or on holiday — have proved huge carrots for large swathes of people who were previously unsure of or even downright against vaccinations.

It’s interesting to note that Ireland is now perhaps the most pro-vaccine nation in the EU. In comparison, a poll this week suggested just four in 10 people in France want to have a vaccination against Covid-19 — most nay-sayers gave fear of side-effects as the reason for this.

The pandemic has devastated France, and even the vaccine may not be enough to end the misery there if the take-up ends up being so poor.

Why has Ireland seen such a shift in attitudes to the vaccine?

It’s hard to tell, but it’s perhaps a sign that people here are more prepared to listen to and trust the government and its advisors, and the mainstream media, rather than heading down dark alleys of the internet and engaging in daft conspiracy talk.

Perhaps it’s also a credit to our highly educated population, and a credit to our sense of community.

However, I can only see our uptake of the vaccine getting higher if the threatened vaccination passports come into force.

These may see only vaccinated people able to board a plane, enter a restaurant, or attend a sports fixture. And, despite cries about human rights being breached by anti-vaxxers, such a system would surely be in the public interest.

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