Trust-deficit at the heart of vaccine hesitancy, a symptom of a deeper crisis

Crises in governance and economic practices result in trust-deficit, manifesting as scepticism, hesitancy and rejection in the context of Covid-19 pandemic.

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Published in Focus Malaysia & Astro Awani, image by Focus Malaysia.

ASSUMING people are equally accessible to both fake news as well as official information, making the “wrong” conclusion or choice could be attributed to a combination of two factors: inability to comprehend and make critical assessments on the information, and/or distrust to the information or information provider, regardless of comprehension.

In essence, people lose trust in those that disappoint or fail them, and trust deficit is a symptom of a deeper crisis underlined by cumulative failures of governing and economic practices which have been brewing globally well before COVID-19 pandemic.

Although persistent fake news and misinformation received and disseminated by mostly uninformed public are contributing factors to COVID-19 scepticism and vaccine hesitancy, the widespread push of fake news is partly driven by severe distrust to official information – not the lack of it.

Examining this in the micro-context of COVID-19 scepticism and vaccine hesitancy, the general landscape is plagued with players with reputational issues, making trust-deficit an inevitable theme. The “ecosystem” has failed the people, and distrust is an expected outcome of repeated disappointments. 

Starting with governments, COVID-19 discovery was quickly followed by accusations between the USA and China, which has persisted until today, further clouding the mystery behind COVID-19 origins and fuelling conspiracy theories. Both countries have their negative reputational issues internally and in the global arena.

Moving beyond China and the USA, richer countries that are known as vanguards of global democracy and proponents of liberated economies appear to have secured large vaccine doses in advance, negatively impacting equitable vaccine access to poorer nations. Widely touted phrase of “global solidarity” are seen by poorer nations as mere lip-service, if not outright hypocritical.

Advanced nations shouldn’t be baffled by the global distrust to authorities with these exemplary behaviours.

Zooming in locally, there is a clear and persistent societal divide that has shaped Malaysia’s political landscape (and vice versa) over many decades. Its political history has been shrouded with accusations of government control of mainstream media.

Also, the pandemic coincided closely with back-to-back change in Government. The experience has left some portion of the public with a sense of betrayal by elected lawmakers, reinforcing distrust to the authority.

The current Government took on the driver’s seat in one of the most difficult times for Malaysia where it is faced with major health, economic and political crisis, all at once.

Though it had shown great care and empathy through various stimulus packages, unfortunately its efforts are constantly being overshadowed by opportunistic politicians that insist on demonstrating selfish behaviours which have served to further deepened the collective sense of distrust by the people.

Public backlash and suspicion on COVID-19 containment and management strategies worldwide would be much lesser if these healthcare-driven interventions and control measures come from governments or authorities that have secured public trust.

Any authorities (governments and politicians around the world) that have had a history of power abuse shouldn’t be surprised with any rejection, scepticism or hesitancy expressed by the very same people they were mandated to take care of.

Politicking at the backdrop of a pandemic where lives and livelihoods have been destroyed can only lead to a more deteriorated sense of trust to politicians.

Secondly, through hardcore capitalism, businesses have propagated wealth and income disparity. Phrases such as “high-income nation” and “high value chains” are restricted to better income to governments and business owners if the so-called “high income” don’t translate to better wealth distribution (income) for the vast majority of workers.

In the backdrop of inflation, higher living costs and weakened purchasing power, the worsening socio-economic disparity leads to deteriorating quality of life for the many. Incumbent economic practices have failed both the people and the environment.

In the context of COVID-19, pharmaceutical companies are almost peerless when it comes to negative public image driven by perception of unfettered profiteering and various historical scandals such as the opioid epidemic, alleged monumental price hikes of drugs and other cases.

As with any parties that are clear beneficiaries to the health crisis, Big Pharma are subjected to a worsening distrust, making it a constant target for accusations. On top of that, there has been news of governments claiming to be “bullied” by a pharmaceutical company through unreasonable terms and demands in vaccine supply deal. It’s unfortunate as this could be a case of one or few bad apples in the industry.

Just like governments and politicians, Big Pharma has itself to blamed for the negative reputation and distrust. As beneficiaries of the pandemic and makers COVID-19 vaccines, scepticism, hesitancy and rejection are expected.

Thirdly, mainstream media is also seen by many as a mouthpiece of the powers that be. As such, mainstream media suffers with similar trust-deficit issues. This is on top of the many sources that make information navigation and verification difficult, made worse by the potential bias of non-independent sources and preference for sensationalised news.

Without a critical mass of independent expert voices in these channels, these factors reinforce the belief of mainstream media filtration and censorship, stemming from perceptions of non-independence that limit the spectrum of acceptable public opinion.

In Malaysia, even though we are only recently seeing a fake news law enacted under the emergency ordinance, distrust in mainstream media has persisted decades ago when the public linked it to the dominant ruling party.

Distrust to authorities is one of the drivers for the persistent dissemination of fake news and vaccine misinformation which capitalise on people’s desire to seek alternative sources of information.

Alternative sources become the incumbent “truth” when there is a blanket rejection of official information. This is a dangerous self-reinforcing loop, and its impact amplified through unregulated social media and messaging platforms.

The combined pre-existing and newly developed distrust toward governments, corporations and mainstream media only deepens with the health and economic shock of the pandemic.

Its impact rippled through other actors in the landscape such as global health authorities and any other seemingly benefitting parties such as tech giants, investors and even philanthropic organisations.

It would be unreasonable to expect this deep-seated and wide-ranging trust deficit translating into anything other than scepticism and hesitancy, if not outright rejection.

Mandatory vaccinations or other mechanisms that are as good as making it mandatory are only temporary measures by governments to bypass (not address) one of many potential symptoms that reflect a deeper crisis that it had been contributing to. It is a symptom which the pandemic merely helped re-surface.

As the saying goes, “trust is earned, not given”. Likewise, an ecosystem where the governing principles are characterised by the rule-of-law, justice, good ethical principles and inclusivity combined with economic practices which reflect empathy, better wealth distribution, lowered income gap, more equitable opportunities and improved quality of life for the many would likely find it reciprocated by better cooperation and trust by the people.

It’s not rocket science. People trust what takes care of them and distrust what keeps failing them or what constantly takes advantage of them, regardless of the comprehension of the issue at hand.

The way we have governed ourselves combined with unethical economic practices have arguably failed the majority and benefitted the few, and one of the symptoms of this deeper crisis is trust-deficit.

In the micro-context of COVID-19 pandemic, this manifests itself as COVID-19 and vaccine scepticism, hesitancy and rejection. A new framework that promotes governing and socio-economic justice is needed.    

For example, “Malaysia 5.0” is being developed and proposed in Malaysia as an overarching national strategy to overcome fundamental issues mentioned above.

Inspired by Japan’s “Society 5.0”, it puts the people at the heart of widespread, interconnected, interoperable and transparent technology application to help shape a fairer governance framework through radical transparency and promote more equitable economic practices.

Ameen Kamal is the Head of Science & Technology at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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