Monday, November 29, 2021

Toronto city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam's odd foray into COVID-19 misinformation and lessons learned...

Toronto councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam
We have all been through such a tough couple of years dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

From the horrors of getting sick and dying or slowly recovering, to the shock of lockdowns and at-home isolation, to the inability to see our loved ones for months on end, to the economy grinding to a halt, it has been disastrous for all of us.   

We did this all while facing fears of this new and strange virus, desperate to get verifiable information about it and react accordingly.  Most reasonable people have somehow pushed through, with the mental scars to show for it.   

Our struggles have been made worse thanks to a minority of folks who have largely ignored safety warnings to mask up in public places and have refused vaccines when they became available.   

Some skepticism is always healthy.  But to embrace skepticism to such extremes as to ignore clear evidence made obvious over months is - let me choose my words carefully - foolhardy, reckless, na├»ve, and misguided.  Some might even justifiably say stupid. 

If someone I recognize as smarter than me says I've done something stupid, I might be angry and in denial about it at first.  But eventually, I'll hopefully calm down, reflect on my actions and perhaps come to accept that yes I made a mistake.  And learn from it.   

But it's true - there is a world of difference between being accused of, "doing something stupid," and just being called, "stupid.”  The former can hopefully lead to some reflection about one's actions.  "Stupid is as stupid does," after all.   But I can admit that the latter is insulting and conversation-destroying.  

We ought to avoid ever calling other people "stupid," or, "idiotic."  Even if we're tempted.  It's harmful and unproductive.  

I can understand why some people might instinctively mistrust the science around COVID-19 vaccines.  The vaccinations have been developed in an incredibly quick amount of time thanks to massive funding and prioritizing by wealthy world governments and corporations.  Their effectiveness has been documented by independent health professionals the world over through verified data and the experiences of hundreds of millions of people.  As predicted, negative reactions have been minimal, and the vast majority of us have reacted well to them.  The dropping case and hospitalization rates among the vaccinated prove the expert medical advice we received about vaccinations is true.  

To cling to doubt and misinformation about their effectiveness at this stage is simply senseless, particularly since we also know that the unvaccinated remain particularly vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 and its new, ever-more-dangerous mutations.  In turn, the unvaccinated will continue to be a health threat to the most vulnerable among us.

I did sympathize somewhat with Kristyn Wong-Tam's expressed desire to dial down the divisiveness, as she claimed she wanted to do when she initially chose to publish an opinion piece in the Toronto Sun, of all places, earlier this month.  The Toronto Sun, of course, has a history of publishing lies and anti-LGBTQ, anti-immigrant propaganda, so her choice of newspaper certainly surprised me.

Had she chosen to publish the same piece in the Toronto Star, it's entirely possible her Star editor would've fact-checked her false claim before publishing that "those who are vaccinated can still get COVID-19 and can still transmit it to others just as easily as those who are unvaccinated."  Clearly, no such fact-checking happens at the Sun, who are more than happy to publish misinformation as they do on most topics every day (as do most conservative propaganda companies masquerading as news outlets.)

I immediately knew when I read that line in her Sun piece that Wong-Tam had published a lie.

It was shocking because she is Vice-Chair of the Toronto Board of Health and has access to the most updated, verified information that long ago made clear that fully vaccinated people are less likely to contract the virus, and if they do, it will not be as severe (if they are otherwise healthy) and can't spread with the ease as it does from the unvaccinated.

Wong-Tam said part of her inspiration in writing the article was to defend her beloved parents, whom she claimed had refused to be vaccinated for their own personal and "legitimate" reasons.  Their sentiments were shared, she wrote, by those in the Black, Indigenous and people of colour communities, when it comes to not trusting big pharma, policing or government.

I can sympathize with those sentiments, but her article literally set back the cause of public health.  It was her job to help convince those not yet comfortable with vaccinations to get comfortable, not defend their "legitimate" reasons and mislead.

Wong-Tam has thankfully since apologized.

"I, unfortunately, made an honest mistake with information I shared from an August 2021 memo...That memo is outdated and the context in which I shared it was misleading and left the wrong impression.  I know some people were disappointed and confused about that error, so I do want to take some time today to clarify.  I believe the scientific evidence is clear: vaccinations are an essential tool in ending the pandemic. Everyone who is able should get their shot. The more vaccinated people we have, the less transmission we have. I regret that this information distracted from my main reason for writing the article."

Despite that retraction and apology, many anti-vaxxers, who never met a fact they weren't willing to ignore or reject if it didn't jibe with their long-established prejudices, are probably continuing to quote Wong-Tam's article as a reason not to get vaccinated.  True to form, the Toronto Sun has yet to alter its online version of her original November 18th piece to reflect the fact Wong-Tam has retracted her statements and apologized for them.  (I won't link to it as it is a right-wing, fake news propaganda site.)

Until her retraction, I assume Wong-Tam had clung to that lie all these months perhaps because in the back of her mind it made her feel better about her parents' decision.  Or others' decisions.  Sometimes our biases for the people we love cloud our better judgment.

Wong-Tam's actions did cause me to reflect on my own positions.  I am uncomfortable with the idea of unvaccinated people literally losing their jobs because of their decision.  I do think we all need to dial down our rhetoric on this issue, myself included.   I have let my emotions get the better of me and I do regret some arguments I've had.

Nevertheless, I am forced to support vaccine mandates including in many public workplaces as a justifiable tool to promote public health and safety.  Unless you have a rare medical condition that prevents you from getting vaccinated, you must get vaccinated.  The safety of the many - whose lives are literally at risk - outweighs the choices and discomforts of the few.  This is a pandemic, after all, not some superfluous flu that will just go away on its own, as the hero of many anti-vaxxers once lied.

I'm disappointed in Wong-Tam.  I've been a huge supporter of her for years, and I've admired her dogged determination to provide the Toronto Centre community with vital information regarding this pandemic.  But on this one, it was a huge error.  I'm glad she's decided not to seek another term as Vice-Chair of Toronto Public Health as a result.  This one is going to be impossible to forget.