Diary of an engineer: Vaccines and "we don't know"

Submitted by AWL on 5 January, 2021 - 5:52 Author: Emma Rickman
Engineering plant

On my last shift at work before a break, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine breakthroughs had just been announced. J, a fitter, seems to be caught between his friends’ scepticism and his Mum’s anxious experience cleaning hospital wards.

“They’re not forcing anyone to have it, but eventually you’ll have to have it in order to do certain things — like fly abroad, or work in certain cities. And it’ll get harder and harder to do things without it — that’s what worries me.”

He talks about his Mum with some half-mocking, half-anxious laughter:

“She’s hearing the news and tying herself in knots. I said we’re within the rules to see you at Christmas — I said look, you’re better off with us, you’ll go down a hole left on your own. She’s working in hospitals and she’s seeing all these patients and cleaning up after them. One day this group of workers were sat in the canteen without masks, and she went on about them all week.”

There’s a general, hard-to-pin-down mistrust of lockdown and the vaccines among my colleagues, which is unnerving. I ask L, an electrician, what he actually thinks is going on here.

L: “What concerns me, is how fast they got this vaccine out. How do they know it’s safe? What if in six months it has massive side effects? I think I’ll wait till I have to have it.”

Me: “So you’ll use the first load of people having it as guinea pigs before you trust it?”

L: “We don’t know what it’s going to do — it could dissolve your bollocks off in two years’ time — no one knows.”

Me: “Look, right — it makes sense that this vaccine got out quickly, doesn’t it? Because literally the whole world and the economy is stuck until it does. Everyone’s resources are going into this, and governments are pushing hard. You’re a ‘trician, right — would you trust someone unqualified to do your job?”

L: “No.”

Me: “No, ok! So you need to trust the doctors and scientists who’ve spent their whole lives working on their professions to know what they’re talking about.”

L: “There was that drug pregnant women were taking, formaldehyde[thalidomide?]; even in tests they didn’t know what the effects would be.”

Me: “Sure — and that’s very scary, but that drug is not the same as these vaccines. They got through rigorous trials on real people, they’re not pulling these figures out of the air — the Pfizer vaccine has a 95% success rate. I mean — why? Why would the government fake the data? Lock-down their own citizens without good reason? They’d only be shooting themselves in the foot — in the face!”

L: “I don’t know!” he smiles and shrugs cynically “That’s the thing — we don’t know.”

I show him a BBC graph of measles and smallpox vaccines which show the number of cases plummeting over time.

“These were very common illnesses before vaccines — now smallpox is gone.”

L: “You seem pretty worked up about this!”

Me: “I am! What I’m trying to say is that this isn’t about you — us — as individuals, it’s about everyone, literally everyone in the world. If this vaccine is 95% effective, that means that 5% of the population — millions of people — are still vulnerable to covid. And if, given the chance, we don’t get a vaccine because we’re not worried about dying, or we have paranoid hang-ups about getting jabs, we’re still transmitters and can spread it to more vulnerable people. That 5% becomes 10%, another million people, more deaths...”

I run out of breath, laugh humourlessly. “This is important.”

• Emma Rickman is an apprentice engineer at a Combined Heat and Power Plant

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