Vaccine Hesitancy, the Medical Establishment, and the COVID Apocalypse

This month the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Sixth Assessment Report. As with the previous five reports, it is bursting with dire “projections” about the future of the planet and civilization (they never say “predictions” because there is always some accountability and embarrassment when a prediction turns out to be wrong). 

I’m no climate scientist, so I can’t claim to hold a research-based opinion on “global climate change,” as it is now known. But I remember exactly when I started taking the “projections” of bodies like the IPCC with a grain of salt. It was when the “Climategate” scandal came to light in 2009, in which a hacked server resulted in a leak of internal emails from climate scientists at the prestigious Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in Great Britain.

The leaked emails clearly showed that researchers were withholding important information from the public—information that would undermine the apocalyptic claims of climate scientists. For example, illustrious expert Kevin Trenberth acknowledged to his colleagues that “The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty.” But rather than admit this uncertainty, researchers colluded to “hide the decline” from the public. 

At this moment it became evident to me that scientific experts and policy makers said different things to the public than they did to each other—and that their omissions and obfuscations were deliberate attempts to advance political objectives rather than investigate empirical evidence.

What if I told you that something similar was now unfolding, but this time pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic? What if you learned that the claims that scientists and policy experts are making behind closed doors don’t align with what they are saying to non-experts like you and me? Indeed, the experts’ publicly-stated opinions on the pandemic don’t reinforce the claims they make in the peer-reviewed research intended for fellow-expert audiences.

The Genre of Apocalypse and its Rhetorical Uses

While the apocalyptic style is commonly thought to be confined to religious discourse, it is increasingly employed for non-religious, progressive purposes, on issues like climate change, and yes, COVID-19.

When most people hear the term “apocalypse,” they think of the end of the world. Strictly speaking, though, apocalypse isn’t an event, it is a genre­—it is a particular type of speech or text. An apocalypse, then, is when a speaker reveals a vision or signs that show how the end of things will come about. A certain fatalism defines these texts: the end that is foretold is often cataclysmic, a future violent upheaval that will be difficult (if not impossible) to avert. Whether they be religious or secular, it must be understood that the function of all apocalyptic rhetoric is to persuade some audience to change its behavior. If you can convince a person that some catastrophe is imminent—whether that catastrophe is divine judgment or death from COVID—you can probably convince them to take action to avoid that fate.

As I read documents from experts on COVID-19, it became evident that the apocalyptic style they used was also directed to this end—they want to change the behavior of the public. Expertise plays an important role in the genre of apocalypse. The writer/speaker to whom the vision of the end is revealed necessarily has an “elect” status. This is important because the apocalyptic insights often consist of signs and symbols, the meaning and import of which must be interpreted and explained for the audience of the text. Thus, the person to whom the signs of the end are shown takes on the status of the priestly caste in possession of the revealed truth necessary to understand and translate the signs to regular people. 

The “experts” on the pandemic—the scientists, epidemiologists, and policy makers—have taken on this priestly status. Their public speech serves to convey and decrypt the complex scientific truths for a benighted population. The dominant logic says that if we just listen to them, if we just get vaccinated and keep our masks on and stay six feet apart, if we will simply repent and change our ways, then maybe, just maybe, we can avoid our doom.

Of course, the priestly class doesn’t wax apocalyptic when talking to the other priests: They do it for the “non-experts,” the uninitiated lay people who need a shepherd to lead and direct them. When the priests are talking to one another—when the sheep have left the temple—they speak in a different voice. My research on apocalypse rhetoric brought me to places that I wasn’t supposed to be. I reviewed texts produced by experts for experts, such as work in medical journals that regular people like us often don’t or can’t access. What I found was frightening—and very much at odds with what our experts are saying in public.

The Lancet Says the Quiet Part Out Loud

The most egregious document that I found was from an October 2020 issue of The Lancet. The Lancet is often classified as the second-best peer-reviewed journal on medical science in the world—in other words, its reputation is sterling. The text in question here is titled Lancet COVID-19 Commission Statement on the occasion of the 75th session of the U.N. General Assembly.” The beginning of the statement explains that the COVID commission was formed “to assist governments, civil society, and U.N. institutions in responding effectively to the pandemic.” While it is of note that the medical establishment is openly working with an international political body like the United Nations, what follows is even more disturbing.

The statement outlines the four central goals of the commission: 

[1] suppressing the pandemic by means of pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical interventions; [2] overcoming humanitarian emergencies including poverty, hunger, and mental distress, caused by the pandemic; [3] restructuring public and private finances in the wake of the pandemic; and [4] rebuilding the world economy in an inclusive, resilient, and sustainable way.

Certainly, the medical establishment should direct their efforts to the first goal. While the second goal may be laudable, I am skeptical of the ability of medical professionals to solve the problems it names. But what in the world do the third and fourth goals have to do with the pandemic? How does the medical establishment have any business at all in “restructuring public and private finances” or “rebuilding the world economy”? Aren’t these last two objectives (and the collusion between international political bodies and professionals to achieve them) the very substance of what some have termed “The Great Reset”—an idea smeared as a “baseless conspiracy theory” by the same prophetic experts who interpret the signs of our coming doom?

The commission statement only gets better (or rather, worse) from there. After explaining that COVID-19 and many other diseases are “zoonoses, resulting from pathogens being transmitted from animals to humans,” they dismissively address the idea that the virus is “the result of laboratory creation and release” and insist that any research into the origins of COVID “should proceed expeditiously, scientifically, and objectively, unhindered by geopolitical agendas and misinformation.” Never mind that the lab leak theory is now widely acknowledged as the most likely scenario

Next, the statement specifically chides Donald Trump for being a “medical populist” who should “desist from expressing personal viewpoints that are at odds with science,” in between segments wherein the writers praise the prevention measures employed by China. Throughout, the text warns against “baseless and uninformed allegations and conspiracy theories that are unbacked [sic] by evidence.”

Thus, while The Lancet insists that we stridently avoid political agendas, it is quite clear that their commission on COVID-19 has a keen stake in certain political agendas which they are aggressively trying to advance. 

Moreover, the timing of the statement’s publication can’t be ignored—October 2020, one month before the U.S. presidential election. In discussing the status of the vaccine (which was supposedly still in the development process at that time), the authors indirectly reference Trump when they say “We are . . .  alarmed at attacks on regulators, such as the recent accusations that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is delaying vaccine development for political reasons, rather than in the interest of human safety.” 

Readers may recall that in the months before the election Trump was slammed by fact-checkers and media when he suggested the vaccine was being delayed to influence the presidential contest. Not coincidentally, though, its readiness was announced only days after the media declared that Biden had won the election. Shortly thereafter, Trump’s claim that the vaccine was delayed for political reasons was vindicated. Bear in mind that The Lancet didn’t merely say this claim was false and “alarming”—they asserted that the real reason for the delay was a concern for “human safety.” If this was truly a concern, why did the vaccine go through a substantially abbreviated approval process? And why was the medical establishment enthusiastically endorsing it only weeks later?

But the biggest shock of the commission statement comes next. The writers insist that they were “concerned about the emphasis and focus on new and unproven vaccine technologies, such as mRNA, DNA, and viral-vector technologies, which will be expensive and have not been shown to offer benefits (in terms of vaccine immunity or safety) over traditional and far less expensive inactivated virus, attenuated virus, and recombinant protein approaches.”

So many things bear mentioning here. First, note the odd, prudential concern with monetary cost in a report that spends pages talking about “restructuring public and private finances” and “rebuilding the world economy”—goals that seem to throw economic caution to the wind. Secondly (and much more importantly), the text expresses “concern” with mRNA vaccine technology. Why is this a surprise? Because most of the vaccines currently being distributed all over the world are mRNA vaccines. In other words, in a span of 90 days, the medical establishment went from professing skepticism about the efficacy and safety of mRNA vaccines to a univocal scientific “consensus” that such vaccines—which went through abbreviated testing—are not only entirely safe, but must be widely administered to achieve the desired public health outcomes. Of course, today the CDC will tell you that any concern about these vaccines is scientifically ungrounded, an idea dutifully (and insanely) echoed by the entire mainstream media.

Abandoning Objectivity: Apocalypse as a Political Power Play

It is not a new insight that apocalyptic rhetoric is used in non-religious contexts. But the fact that it is being used in official secular contexts by representatives of the state and the medical establishment is important. It is important because our officials—our experts—base their claims to authority precisely on their opposition to irrational, mystical ways of understanding the world. 

In his landmark book, Science in a Free Society, philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend noted (back in 1978!) that “the power of the medical profession over every stage of our lives already exceeds” the power of the Church during the Medieval era. Further, he explains that “liberal intellectuals . . . regard rationalism (which for them coincides with science) not just as one view among many but as a basis for society.” 

Thus, our experts and elites insist upon the political neutrality of their uses of power, and base their authority on the supposed empirical validity of their claims. Unlike us, they aren’t guided by “agendas” and “misinformation.” Instead, they belong to the priestly class that interprets reality through the application of objective science, empiricism, and rationality. It is their exclusive ability to use these tools that justifies their sovereignty and disqualifies any resistance or “hesitancy” on the part of the lay public as error and delusion.

These experts interpret the signs of our impending doom by counting deaths, hospitalizations, and vaccination percentages, touting the latest “data,” and begging the public to repent and submit to their superior judgment. But in private, to one another—in the boring, technical pages of medical journals like The Lancet—they confess their political allegiances and agendas. They admit that the pandemic is being leveraged to advance economic and social aims that bear no relation to health outcomes. They admit their intent to reinvent civilization in a “inclusive, resilient, and sustainable” way. Speaking to each other, they will admit their concerns that the vaccine was being hurried. They will express their uncertainties about the safety and efficacy of mRNA vaccines.

But speaking to us, out in the open, they wax apocalyptic: of course they are not seeking a “great reset,” or anything of that sort . . . it’s simply too dangerous to go “back to normal,” and societal interventions may be necessary to ensure we do not.

So, what is the public to think? Ten months ago, the medical establishment was explicitly stating their own hesitancy about the vaccine. Only three months later, they were adamantly imploring every American to take it. There are two possibilities. 

The first is that the United Nations’ COVID-19 commission never really had any reservations about the development, safety, or efficacy of mRNA vaccines, but only expressed skepticism in order to slow down the development of the vaccine and to encourage hesitancy and doubt among everyday people when it appeared that a vaccine might be brought to market before the 2020 election (when Trump might have reaped some political reward). The second possibility is that the medical establishment was telling the truth in The Lancet when they expressed reservations about mRNA vaccines and then not only allowed, but endorsed, a mass vaccination program in spite of their scientific concerns.

Both things can’t be true at the same time. They can’t have been honest in stating skepticism about mRNA vaccines and have been honest in their unequivocal endorsement only weeks later. In a word, such a change of opinion would have been “unscientific.” Confident scientific claims depend on long-term observation of the effects of a particular intervention, and they require successful efforts to replicate the findings of earlier studies to grant those claims the status of “truth.” The 10 months since the introduction of the vaccine simply isn’t a long enough time period for those things to have occurred. And thus, the claims about the general safety and efficacy of the vaccine do not meet the criteria necessary for a high-confidence scientific consensus.

Either the COVID commission lied in a peer-reviewed journal to advance political objectives and thereby played a role in creating the “hesitancy” which they now insist can only be explained by the stupidity or recalcitrance of the public, or they violated the Hippocratic oath and exposed millions to potential health risks of which they were aware but unwilling to acknowledge publicly. 

Whichever explanation is the truth, any “vaccine hesitancy” is clearly justifiable on rational grounds. But elites continue to insist it is not only irrational and anti-scientific, but dangerous—to refuse the vaccine is to join a literal death cult. This is the language of the apocalypse. It is decidedly unscientific and irrational in character.

In religious contexts, the supernatural aspects of apocalyptic rhetoric aren’t a problem. Religious discourse never pretends to be a vehicle for scientific objectivism. But when we see public servants and officials (who ground their authority in their exclusive access to “neutral” scientific truths) warning us that the cataclysmic end is near, then they have implicitly conceded that their authority is illegitimate. They have allowed science to become a vehicle for something like religious belief. Their apocalyptic fear-mongering is a last resort: it means they have recognized that the mere fact of their expertise is no longer a sufficient way to coerce your compliance. 

As The Lancet’s report shows, they care more about their ability to enforce their priestly diktats and covert political preferences than they do about truth, health, or ethics. With such naked power plays on plain display, rational people can be forgiven for a little hesitancy and some healthy skepticism.

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About Adam Ellwanger

Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor of English at the University of Houston – Downtown where he directs the M.A. program in rhetoric and composition. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, will be released from Penn State University Press in 2020. You can follow him on Twitter at @DoctorEllwanger

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