Relationships are being wrecked by the debate over vaccines

In the name of personal freedom, people are being tested to the breaking point

epa08864209 Shoppers on Oxford Street during the first weekend after lockdown in London, Britain, 05 December 2020. Tens of thousands of shoppers flocked to central London for christmas shopping after three weeks of lockdown. Since 02 December the UK government replaced national lockdown restrictions against coronavirus with a regional tier system of lockdown restrictions.  EPA/ANDY RAIN

Have you, like millions of people across the world, lost a friend or a family member to the coronavirus?

This ongoing tragedy can perhaps best be described as a slow-onset disaster. Unlike other natural and man-made disasters this one is invisible to most of us and has a much higher death toll than a 'conventional' disaster.

On December 9, over 3,000 people died from Covid-19 in the US – higher than the lives lost in 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina or the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.

Unlike those one-off events, Covid-19 will continue to take its toll and the final number of fatalities will depend significantly on human behaviour.

In addition to this high mortality, many of our relationships are being tested to the breaking point.

Many of us are losing friends and family – if not to Covid-19 – to dangerous beliefs and conspiracy theories.

To mask or not to mask; to vaccinate or not to vaccinate; such important decisions continue to divide people, with substantial numbers on either side of the debate.

Buzz words such as 'plandemic' and 'sheeple' have become common and given voice to conspiratorial ideas on the origins and aims of the pandemic, while mocking the lamblike people who follow sound health advice.

My daughter recently visited the UK, where she continued wearing her mask. She was surprised to see the large number of people who were not. Worse still, some expressed disdain and incredulity at why she was wearing hers.

To repurpose the logic of the French philosopher Blaise Pascal: If masks help limit the spread of the virus – which they do – my daughter is part of the solution. Even if they don’t work, as some still dogmatically contend, then she would, at the most, have been only slightly inconvenienced.

A woman wearing a face mask reading in Spanish: "Only the people can save the people" protests against plans by Madrid's authorities to force staff to transfer to other hospitals at the 12 Octubre hospital in Madrid, Spain, Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. The rate of Spain's coronavirus contagion has dropped to levels not seen since the end of August, when a resurgence began in earnest, but the country's top coronavirus expert says that the situation remains of "high risk" and that the curve of contagion needs to be flattened to avoid a third wave before vaccination begins. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

In societies like the UAE, the enforcement of evidence-based infection control measures was swift and effective for the common good.

In other societies, however, the pursuit of personal freedoms for many has become a rallying cry.

This has led to suboptimal levels of compliance with governmental health directives, ultimately leading to increased numbers of preventable deaths.

Writing in the New York Times, Pope Francis recognised this trend suggesting that: "It's is all too easy for some to take an idea – in this case, for example, personal freedom – and turn it into an ideology, creating a prism through which they judge everything".

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Many of these 1.6 million fatalities are an indirect consequence of hyper-individualism – the unnecessary elevation of personal freedoms over common good

This elevation of personal freedom beyond the common good can put a strain on our relationships. As can a beloved person's divergent opinions.

Decades of research in social psychology suggests that we tend to like and befriend people we perceive as being similar to us in attitudes and behaviours. This phenomenon is known as the liking-similarity effect.

However, when people we hold dear begin voicing attitudes at odds with our own it becomes much harder to see them in a positive light.

But why would a friend or family member suddenly start spouting new and strange beliefs?

Anger, fear, a loss of trust in “authorities” and a constant rubbishing of the mainstream media has led to fertile ground for the proliferation of conspiracy theories.

Many of these theories are engineered to be unfalsifiable and they give rise to yet more beliefs that are hard to shift with logic or substantial contradictory evidence.

In many ways, they share similarities with the ideas held by doomsday cult members. It is problematic when a friend or loved one announces that masks don’t work and actually make you sicker. In the context of Covid-19, these unfounded cultish notions continue to cost lives.

Emmy winning TV producer Jesse Mann recently posed the following question on Twitter: “Have you lost friends because of their conspiracy theories?”.

I was surprised by how many people answered yes, sharing stories about friends and family members they felt were beyond reasoning with and therefore had to cut loose.

If we can avoid it and it is safe to do so, I think it is far better to discuss such beliefs. Pushing people away due to their odd attitudes and discrepant ideas minimises our opportunity for healthy discussion.

epa08864211 Shoppers on Oxford Street during the first weekend after lockdown in London, Britain, 05 December 2020. Tens of thousands of shoppers flocked to central London for christmas shopping after three weeks of lockdown. Since 02 December the UK government replaced national lockdown restrictions against coronavirus with a regional tier system of lockdown restrictions.  EPA/ANDY RAIN

It isolates them further and may drive some to seek belonging in dubious online communities that centre on baseless tropes.

Arguing and trying to forcibly “re-educate” people is ineffective but asking gentle questions can help. For example: Why does Sweden, where masks are not mandatory, have a much higher Covid-19 death rate than Japan, where masks are mandatory?

Globally, we have lost 1.6 million people to the pandemic. Many of these fatalities are an indirect consequence of hyper-individualism – the unnecessary elevation of personal freedoms at the expense of the common good.

Many are also the indirect consequence of the infodemic – the proliferation of conspiracies and misinformation.

To mitigate the impact of future pandemics, we need an even greater focus on information literacy and critical thinking within our education system, helping people discern fact from fiction so that they wear masks, take vaccines, and don't perpetuate false claims that ultimately end up costing lives.

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University and a columnist for The National

Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University and a columnist for The National