The first thing I did when the three Covid vaccines were given their Emergency Use Authorizations between mid-December 2020 and late February of 2021 was to seek out the summaries of the clinical findings that had led to these regulatory actions. I quickly found them and delved into what they had to say on protection against infection and transmission.
I did so because my intuitions, backed by my reading of non-mainstream sources, had long suggested to me that the endgame envisioned by those managing the pandemic was to impose vaccine mandates on as many people and as many populations as they could.
And I knew that the ability to successfully implement this plan of widespread vaccination would hinge, or at least should hinge, on the ability to substantiate the injections’ effectiveness in the key realms mentioned above: preventing infection and transmission.
The first company to receive approval, and hence to have a briefing document issued about its product by the FDA, was Pfizer. Shortly after the document was published on December 10th 2020 I read the 53-page document and zeroed in on the section titled “Known Benefits” (p.46) where I found the following three-line summary:
• Reduction in the risk of confirmed COVID-19 occurring at least 7 days after Dose 2
• Reduction in the risk of confirmed COVID-19 after Dose 1 and before Dose 2
• Reduction in the risk of confirmed severe COVID-19 any time after Dose 1
Hmm, that’s funny I thought, there was nothing about the ability to do what government officials and media talking heads were clearly suggesting they would do: stop people from getting infected and passing on the virus.
I kept on reading and came to another much longer section on “Unknown Benefits/Data Gaps.” There I learned that there was not enough information from the limited trials to make any solid affirmative claims about (I’m quoting here):
- Vaccine Duration of protection
- Vaccine Efficacy with immunosuppressed populations
- Vaccine Effectiveness in individuals previously infected with SARS-CoV-2
- Vaccine Effectiveness in pediatric populations
- Vaccine effectiveness against asymptomatic infection
- Vaccine effectiveness against long-term effects of COVID-19 disease
- Vaccine effectiveness against mortality
- Vaccine effectiveness against transmission of SARS-CoV-2
And in the midst of all of these de facto admissions of their limits, I found the paragraph below—listed under the heading of “Future vaccine effectiveness as influenced by characteristics of the pandemic, changes in the virus, and/or potential effects of co-infections”—which seems to indicate that the makers of the vaccines and the regulators overseeing their efforts were well aware that any initial efficacy could quickly be rendered nil by the fast-mutating nature of the virus:
“The study enrollment and follow-up occurred during the period of July 27 to November 14, 2020, in various geographical locations. The evolution of the pandemic characteristics, such as increased attack rates, increased exposure of subpopulations, as well as potential changes in the virus infectivity, antigenically significant mutations to the S protein, and/or the effect of co-infections may potentially limit the generalizability of the efficacy conclusions over time. Continued evaluation of vaccine effectiveness following issuance of an EUA and/or licensure will be critical to address these uncertainties.”
When I checked on the Moderna briefing document issued a week later, I found virtually the same set of disclaimers (starting on page 48) issued in virtually the same language. And when the FDA released the Janssen briefing document on February 26th 2021, there was yet another rehash (starting on page 55) of the same disclaimers in essentially the same idiom.
I was stunned. The issuance of these documents coincided with the kick-off the vaccination campaign in which they were clearly being sold to the public on the basis of their ability to stop infection and transmission. To say the least, they were oversold by most of the top public-health officials and TV pundits, including most of the people relied upon as experts.
Is it, and was it, really plausible to believe that the officials who were leading the vaccine charge on this basis were unaware of what I found in an effortless internet search?
I would say no.
What thus disturbed me even more were the non-reactions I got from friends here in the US in late winter and early Spring, and the readers of my monthly column in the Catalan-language press in May 2021, when I pointed them to the above-cited documents and asked them to observe the enormous gap between the known capabilities of the vaccines and what officialdom was saying they would do for us.
But even more surprising, if that is possible. is that not one reporter in the US that I know of ever confronted anyone in any of the government agencies or in the media with the contents of these easily retrievable and easily read documents.
What could explain this?
We know that government and big tech have worked together to pressure reporters into not going where they don’t want them to go. And this is certainly an important factor in ensuring a certain silence around these documents.
But I think there is a deeper dynamic driving this now persistent failure of so many people, especially the young, to confront authority with the documentary proof of easily-accessible facts. And it has a lot to do with an epochal change in the overall cognitive habits of our culture.
From Orality to Literacy…And Back Again
Thanks to scholars like Walter Ong and Neil Postman we have long been aware of how communicative technologies (e.g. printing presses, books, radio and television) can engender profound changes in our cognitive habits.
Ong explained in great detail what was lost and what was gained in the transition from a culture based primarily in orality to one primarily anchored in literacy, which is to say, the traffic of written texts. He notes, for example, that in the transition to widespread literacy we have lost much in the realm of appreciating the spoken word’s embodied affective magic, and we have gained much in the realm of being able to translate experience into abstract concepts and ideas.
In his Amusing Ourselves to Death (1984) Postman argues that every communicative technology carries within it an epistemology, or world view, that shapes and organizes our cognitive patterns, and from there, our operative concepts of “reality”. As he puts it, when trying to understand communication we must “start from the assumption that in every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself”.
He goes on to suggest that the rise of a more or less stable representative democracy in the United States was inextricably linked to the fact that the country’s late colonial and early republican periods were characterized, when compared to other previous societies, by an unusually wide and dense textual culture. Because we were a nation of obsessive readers, we were, he suggests, unusually well-equipped to visualize the many abstract ideas that one must assimilate to act responsibly and intelligently within a citizen-driven polity.
Postman believed, however, that electronic media, and especially television, were effectively supplanting this dense textual culture with an epistemology that, while not inherently better or worse, was fundamentally different in terms of its cultural emphases. Whereas reading encourages contemplation, linear thinking and as we have said, abstraction, the television encourages entertainment, atemporality and the consumption of fleeting visual sensations.
He did not believe we could stop television’s seductive appeal, nor should we try. He did, however, sustain that we can and should ask ourselves whether, and to what extent, the epistemological emphases of the medium are compatible with engendering the type of comportments we know to be essential for the creation of the civic “good life” in general, and functioning democratic politics in particular.
From what I can tell, we have not seriously taken him up on his suggestion which, if anything, appears to be even more urgent in the age of the internet, a technology that seems to only magnify and accelerate of TV’s epistemological emphases.
I have seen very concrete proof of this failure to address these important matters in my work as a professor.
About ten years ago, a completely new phenomenon entered my teaching life: students quoting words from my class lectures back to me in their written work. At first it was trickle that amused me. But with time, it morphed into a fairly standard practice.
Had I gotten that much more authoritative and captivating as a speaker? I very much doubted it. If anything, I had gone in the other direction, progressively replacing the classic “sage on the stage” method of exposition with an ever more Socratic approach to intellectual discovery.
Then it finally dawned upon me. The students I was now teaching were digital natives, people whose perceptions of the world had been shaped from the very start of their lives by the internet.
Whereas my first experiences of intellectual discovery, and those of most people coming of age during the half millennium previous to my time on earth, had largely taken place in the solitary and contemplative encounter between reader and text, theirs had mostly taken place before a screen that tended to push often disparate and random sounds, images and short chains of text at them in quick succession.
As a result, reading, with its need for sustained attention and its requirement that one actively imagine for one’s self what it is the writer is trying to say, was extremely challenging for them.
And because they cannot easily enter into dialogue with the written page, they had little understanding of the sense of power and self-possession that inevitably accrues to those that do.
Indeed, it seemed that many of them had already resigned themselves to the idea that the best a person could hope to do in this world of non-stop informational comets was to occasionally reach up to try and trap one long enough to give others the impression of being reasonably intelligent and in control of life. That education could be about something more than the game of serially defending the fragile self against a chaotic and vaguely threatening world—and instead be about something like actively building an affirmative and affirming personal philosophy—seemed, for many in this newer cohort, to be largely beyond their ken.
Hence, my newfound quotability.
In a world where, to paraphrase Zygmunt Bauman, all is liquid and most are driven by the search for fleeting sensations, and where establishing a personal hermeneutic through reading and contemplation is considered quaintly quixotic when not impossible, the mutterings of the authority figure nearby take on an enhanced attraction.
This is especially the case for the many young people who, through no fault of their own, have been raised to see almost all human relations as essentially transactional in nature. Since I “need” a good grade and the prof is the person who will ultimately be giving it to me, it certainly can’t hurt to flatter the old goat. You know, give a little bit to get a little bit back.
What’s all this have to do with the news coverage of the EUA reports mentioned above and so much more in the journalistic treatment of the Covid phenomenon?
I would suggest, though I obviously cannot be sure, that this outlook on information management is now predominant among many of the young and not so young people working in journalism today. Unfamiliar with the slow and deliberate processes of deep analytical reading and the importance of seeking information that lies beyond the frenetic and ever more highly managed jungle of delivered feeds, they find it very difficult to forge a durable, unique and cohesive critical praxis.
And lacking this, they, like many of my students, latch on to the oral summaries of reality provided by those presented to them as being authoritative. That these authority figures might be directly contradicting what can be found in the most consequential thing in a society of laws—its written archive—seems never to occur to them. Or if it does occur to them, the idea is quickly suppressed.
Who am I, they seem to say, with my inexperience in mindful reading and research and thus deep insecurities about my own critical acuity to raise discordant questions in relation to the great and powerful men and women before me?
The answer to this query, one apparently too few of us teachers and parents have given them, is that they are citizens of a republic whose founders sought to prevent them from ever having to return to governance by edict. We are all citizens who believe that, among other things, the ability to develop individual critical criteria through independent reading and research, and to openly challenge the powerful with the knowledge resulting from those activities, is key to achieving such an outcome.
About Thomas Harrington
Thomas Harrington is an essayist and Professor of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford (USA) who specializes in Iberian movements of national identity Contemporary Catalan culture.