Paul McNamee: Don’t let social media hinder a future vaccine

The last thing we’ll need are conspiracy theory anti-vaxxers marching proud

Things are not normal. I know this, you know this, the remote and previously cut off Great Andamanese tribes know this. The shadow of coronavirus has settled like a global patina.

You could blame coronavirus focus for the lack of excitement over the polio eradication news.

Last week the World Health Organisation declared that polio had been eradicated in Africa. That’s a hell of thing. Since 1996 a vaccine programme has been under way to beat the virus on the African continent. The numbers around this are staggering. Almost nine billion vaccines were administered. An estimated 1.8 million children were prevented from what the WHO call “crippling lifelong paralysis”. It is a remarkable achievement. Now only two nations – Pakistan and Afghanistan – have polio present in the population. And there are moves to fix that.

But it wasn’t a focus on coronavirus that stopped this success dominating headlines. It was the Proms. The story that the lyrics to Rule, Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory were being banned by the pesky wokeatarian BBC during the broadcast of Last Night of the Proms flared up and focused fury for a few days. It even brought a longer statement from the Prime Minister than he delivered over the exams fiasco. It MUST have been important.

It wasn’t. It was a badly handled episode. It turned out that because there will be no crowds in the Royal Albert Hall, crowd participation won’t be possible. Also, lyrics will be back next year. Besides, there are ripe colonialist attitudes in the words that could be parked for a while. Still, it was given space and fury enough to blister into a culture war. On the one side, those who hold Britishness and a certain pride dear, on the other, those wet liberals who would do all they can to destroy it. As ever, there was no room for nuance or debate.

Culture wars flare and fester under the heat lamps of social media. Sometimes this makes them strong in the real world. Sometimes they burn out. They only live through participation. And it’s not always necessary to participate. There is no requirement to get involved in every argument.

There is another point with culture wars. They need you to take a side. And when you do, you can sometimes insist that there is SOMETHING going on, some truth, because otherwise why would so many people online be saying a thing. Opinion, regardless of how outlandish, becomes fact through willing repetition.

In the US one of the growing conversation pieces online around the re-election of Donald Trump is a belief that he is leading the charge against a sinister underground satanic cult of paedophiles and Hollywood stars.

Culture wars flare and fester under the heat lamps of social media

Which, online, is barely a skip and a jump to the conspiracy theory that we’re being controlled by a global elite who want to suppress us. There are always anti-Semitic elements to these theories – the global one frequently points the finger at philanthropist George Soros. And increasingly they bring in Bill Gates who, for unclear reasons, is accused of using his vaccination programme to implant tiny microchips in people and control them. Threads of barking mad conspiracy theories lace together globally and allow fringe ideas to solidify.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a major, and core, funder of the polio vaccination programme.

Where Gates should be lauded – a billionaire who is trying to use his money to make the world better, rather than spaffing it on a vanity rocket to Mars – he is suspected of attempted mind control.

Pretty soon we will all be part of a global vaccination project aimed at stamping out coronavirus and allowing us to get back to life as we knew it. It’ll be on a scale never seen before.

The last thing we’ll need are conspiracy theory anti-vaxxers marching proud and insisting they don’t need it. Because if there isn’t high enough uptake, the vaccine won’t take.

And no clanging loud culture war will fix that.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue