Hesitancy is hard-wired into all of us but we indulge it now at our peril
Vaccine hesitancy is a modern curse but its root is as ancient as mankind itself and, to some extent, hard-wired into all of us.
Over the past few weeks I’ve met an Israeli diplomat hesitant about being flown home to receive the Pfizer jab, an Ivorian youth worried vaccines were a trick of the colonial west and a London neighbour concerned about “unknown side effects”. Even the health care worker who gave me my first Covid shot said she had delayed her own for several weeks because she had felt “unsure” about it.
Looking at the charts showing the number of Covid cases rising exponentially again across Europe, we are about to pay a terrible price for such hesitancy. More are dying of Covid-19 now than in the first wave on the continent as the faster-spreading and more lethal UK variant takes hold. The outbreaks in the Balkans, Baltic states and Central Europe are among the worst in the world and it looks as if much of western Europe is set to follow.
Even the most efficient of vaccine rollouts could not have entirely prevented the impending crisis but the hesitancy and bungling of European governments in recent weeks over the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine will lead to many thousands of unnecessary deaths.
Worse, if the spike in new cases leads to the emergence of new variants, Europe could export to us what the UK’s own pre-Christmas lockdown hesitancy and bungling delivered to them: a more competitive strain and perhaps one capable of evading existing jabs.
Yet hesitancy in human decision making is core to who we are. We fear losses much more than we value gains and for the most part, that instinct is protective. It’s what stopped so many of our ancestors from being eaten by bears and wolves.
Trouble is, our bias to hesitancy does not always serve us well in the modern world where the calculation of the probabilities of risk and reward is beyond the vast majority of us. It’s one thing to stay in your cave because you can hear wolves outside, quite another to fathom what course of action to take against a five in a million chance of developing a scary-sounding cerebral blood clot.
For these decisions, we look to our leaders. We have no choice but to trust them to oversee the maths and make the right calls. But they, in turn, must retain our trust. One dreadful mistake – a series of late lockdowns or a pharmaceutical disaster, say – and they are toast.
This is the context the row over the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine should be seen in. The UK government, wracked by a year-long series of mistakes, correctly judged that a rapid vaccine rollout was a risk worth taking. But in Europe, especially Germany, which on the whole did better in the early part of the pandemic, politicians may have felt they had more to lose and moved more slowly.
The terrible irony is that that hesitancy now threatens to undermine their early gains – and our later ones.