Rage against the vaccine

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“I’m just astounded at people. Do they think doctors, scientists, and government are out to poison them or something?” – Dr. David Suzuki

The rage against getting the H1N1 flu vaccine has been largely missing from mainstream hysteria mongering, but there is a palpable and angry segment of the population that is refusing to comply with the recommendations of any and all authorities to get the shot. Like Dr. Suzuki, I was astonished at this recalcitrance to obey those who know or are supposed to know what’s good for us.

When a friend sent me an informative article on the swine flu debate, she added that she would net be getting the shot. Go to YouTube and other alternative media web sites, she advised. Find out what’s in the damn serum before you let them inject you. Don’t do any unnecessary harm to your body. Don’t let them tell you what to do. They don’t know. Doctors aren’t gods. Don’t get the shot!

The barrage of advice shocked me and I was puzzled by the total mistrust. Could YouTube be more accurate on this issue than The Globe and Mail, for example? I wrote back to say that I would get the shot and that I felt comforted that every medical professional that had access to the media was telling me to get it. But something kept nagging at me. What did she know that I -- and they -- did not?

At first I was irked that someone would question my decision about my own health. Hey, everyone is on my side with this one. Everyone says it’s the right thing do to. I’m just protecting myself. It’s not Kool-Aid laced with cyanide, you know!

Wrong, said my friend, it might contain things that can hurt you. Also, you don’t know who’s making the big bucks on this deal. Big Pharma could suck billions out of the flu paranoia. It sounded like a capitalist conspiracy theory or a test case for author Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine.”

Remember Y2K2 at the turn of the century? Many of us were convinced that we needed to buy protection for our computers. If we did spend part of the life savings on upgrades, it was for naught. As we all recall, zip happened on Jan.1, 2000, except that Bill Gates and company got a lot richer.

So it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility for the money guys to take advantage of health fears to make a billion or two. When you can get government, media and the medical establishment to help turn the populace into lemmings, why not go for the fast buck? So let’s sew some panic among the peasants.

Then I thought maybe the revolt against the vaccine was generational. The vaccine rebels had to be those pesky generation Xers who, like the 1960s radicals, always question authority. Troublemakers all. But that’s not it. My friend is no spring chicken and she was as determined as the younger set to avoid the shot.

Here’s my theory. Deep down, it’s about a growing collective mistrust in authority as much as it’s about the vaccine. It’s about challenging authority in one of the few ways people have left these days. They are exercising their right to refuse when it comes to their health.

They didn’t have time for a well-orchestrated protest when authorities came for their jobs, their taxes, their homes and so on. Now they are saying NO to that powerful wave of government, media, medical, church and other authority figures who are saying get the shot; it’s good for you.

Many people, some of them no doubt conscientious vaccine rejectors, no longer vote. Why not? They simply do not trust most of the people on the voting ballot. They have been duped too often. The people they have voted for have delivered a relentless bombardment of cuts or challenges to their citizens’ benefits: public health insurance, a safe environment, decent jobs, an incorruptible financial system, truth in politics, the global challenge to our right to safe public water.

They’ve watched their citizens’ rights and benefits deteriorate since the Mulroney/Reagan misery of cut, cut, cut and the lie of jobs, jobs, jobs. They’ve watched Bush Senior continue the savagery and he added war to the mix. More recently, eight years of Bush Junior continued the killing and largely undid decades of socially positive legislation designed to build a social safety net and begin to protect the environment.

Since 9/11 many people have witnessed the dismantling of life as they and their parents knew it. Pensions threatened, unaffordable education, ceaseless war and endless body bags, new strains of disease like swine flu and persistent old ones like cancer or AIDS/HIV.

In the United States, people watched in horror as government sat on its hands while Hurricane Katrina ripped lives apart forever. When giant Asian tsunamis tore through millions of lives, people asked why governments hadn’t warned them ahead of time. Where were the authorities when people needed them most?

Through all of this, a new set of alternative voices has gained strength. People, like my friend, are refusing to accept advice from the mainstream media regarding swine flu and a lot of other things. They don’t trust them. Some believe the media have stopped providing useful information and are now specializing in fear mongering and emotional manipulation.

Even the trust that has been long instilled in our public broadcaster is in question. With its hysterical reporting of the stock market crash last year and now the equally hysterical insistence that everyone should get the shot, people are ever more leery of their publicly funded airwaves.

When the national media say get the shot, many Canadians say ‘tell me why and why not.’ But the media seem to be saying, ‘just trust us.’ And that doesn’t cut it anymore. People have opted to believe another set of voices on the vaccine.

Why now? Why is this the catalyst for action? Is it that we have failed to resist collectively in the past? It’s been almost 175 years since the Rebellions of 1837-38, one of the first instances of mass revolt against authority. There have been other instances of collective action, of course, but mostly people act as individuals, exercising what historians call their human agency or free will to resist when they don’t agree with the powers that be.

People will act collectively in the workplace by withdrawing their labour. They will rally in the streets over an issue of public importance. They will almost always stand up against tax increases. But we seldom respond anymore as a movement of people.

Have we lost our sense of collectivity or community? Is it being smart phoned, IPODed, big-screen TVed and ATMed to death? With smart cards, we don’t even have to talk to the cashier anymore. We just punch in a dollar figure, a password and walk away. 

Are we incapable of organizing ourselves to question those who have asked us to just trust them? Could a response like the current vaccine outrage be the start of a new form of rebellion? Is it a new way of saying, as did Howard Beale in the movie Network, ‘I’m fed up and I’m not going to take it anymore’?

Then again there are millions who will get the shot. They will trust the traditional sources and authorities. Perhaps it’s true that we Canadians accept the historical suggestion that we ‘defer to authority’ and that this deference is part of our national charm. But rebellions and revolutions often start with a few true believers and end up captivating the imaginations of the many. This is especially valid when the issue is poverty or health, and there are plenty of indicators that we are moving toward a poorer, unhealthier world.

So, I ask myself, is the flu vaccine refusal a beachhead of sorts for a public long saturated with authority voices that are perceived untrustworthy? After the bashing and bruising of the past year both economically and socially -- a fearful assault on the mass psychology of Canadians -- is this where people take a stand…even if it means getting sick?

Maybe we’re seeing a potential rising up of people who are no longer happy to defer. Maybe this is a growing phenomenon where people of all ages are pulling together a consensus on how they do and don’t want to be governed. That could include bold extra-parliamentary challenges to the powers of legislatures.

There is a growing belief that elected governments are not in full control, that they are in the pockets of global corporate power brokers, that decisions are based more on profits than the public good. There also seems to be an assumption on the part of lawmakers and policy developers that people will continue to do what they are told in the peaceable kingdom of Canada.

Maybe Dr. Suzuki and I need to rethink our basics. The anti-shot rebels may have good reason to rage against the vaccine and it isn’t necessarily only about taking control of their own health decisions. It just might be about the health of our democracy.

Ron Verzuh is a Vancouver writer and historian. He’s still planning to get the shot if there’s any left, but he also seeks an inoculation against bad governance.

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