Letters to the Editor, feedback to Humanist Perspectives
Two letters from our Readers, in response to Madeline Weld’s editorial, “A Perspective for Dealing with the Pandemic: Less Fear, More Reason” in HP 219, Winter 2021/2022.
Madeline Weld opens by describing her participation in an early (Nov 20th, 2021) demonstration against the emergency public health mandates (specifically, the restrictions on un-vaccinated persons’ ability to enter various public spaces). She then asserts that those measures are based on fear-mongering and as such are a violation of the human rights of herself and her fellow demonstrators. The survivors of the 5.89 million people around the world who have died directly from the disease and of the uncounted millions more who have died from untreated but treatable conditions which could not be treated in time because hospitals were overwhelmed with Covid-19 cases – might beg to differ with that assessment.
She refers to statistics from Israel which she suggests indicate that the vaccines are useless in preventing disease. In fact, those statistics show the exact opposite. What she failed to recognize was that 90% of Israelis were vaccinated, so the number of breakthrough cases merely shows that the vaccine was not 100% effective (as no vaccines are) in preventing infection. The fact that there are more breakthrough cases among the vaccinated than among the un-vaccinated is because so few people are un-vaccinated. What my link above also shows is that the serious cases are comprised almost entirely of the un-vaccinated. 89% of ECMO patients and 60% of deaths are in the un-vaccinated cohort.
To see how 450 breakthrough cases of vaccinated people compared to 150 cases of un-vaccinated people can happen if the virus is even 80% effective against infection, consider the following example: Imagine we have 1000 people of whom 90% are vaccinated with a vaccine which protects 80% of those who get the vaccine. That means 900 people will be vaccinated and 100 will be un-vaccinated. 80% = 720 of those 900 will be protected from infection, but all 100 un-vaccinated will be susceptible. All 100 of the unvaccinated could be infected; 900 – 720 = 280 will be the number of vaccinated people who could be infected. Base rates are an important but often overlooked factor in such calculations.
Before the Omicron variant became widespread, the vaccines were actually amazingly effective – well over 80% effective in preventing infection. With the advent of the Omicron variant, that changed, but had everyone complied with the public health mandates, (and sadly, just as important, had the Pfizers of the world relaxed their intellectual property rights and made the vaccines available to third world markets where they were too expensive for everyone to be immunized), it is possible that the Omicron and maybe even the Delta variant would not have had the time and bodies to evolve.
In fact, this has always been a pandemic of the un-vaccinated as can be readily determined by comparing the death and injury rate in areas where Trump-supporting politicians spread the lie that the disease was not significantly worse than the typical seasonal flu and it became a matter of in-group virtue signalling to refuse the vaccines and to ignore federal public health recommendations and even to demonize Dr. Fauci for disagreeing with their beloved president Trump. Even now, when the Omicron variant seems able to evade the vaccines, being vaccinated still significantly reduces the probability that an Omicron infection will lead to serious consequences. Reducing the severity of or even the incidence of symptoms is not nothing.
Madeline is correct that the messaging around the pandemic could have been far better than it was. The “lying for Jesus” incidents where public health officials asserted absurdities like telling us that surviving a Covid-19 infection gave less robust immunity than the vaccines had the opposite of what was presumably the intended effect of getting everyone who could medically tolerate the vaccines, vaccinated.
Also, support for those people whose financial situation was through no fault of their own suddenly made much worse because of the mandates was woefully inadequate and badly targeted, with many people who were doing well in the pandemic because they were able to work from home or had independent (of employment or small business ownership) income. The failure of that support makes a cruel mockery of the slogan “We’re all in this together”. We clearly are not and that is a huge part of the resistance to the pandemic control mandates.
The temporary rights limitations Madeline protests against are legitimate (per the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms being subject to reasonable limitation). One obviously reasonable limitation is when asserting your right in a public health emergency threatens not only your life, but the lives of everyone with whom you share air. It will doubtless be up to the Supreme Court of Canada to rule at some future date on the reasonableness of the pandemic-related public health mandates.
Madeline goes on to repeat thoroughly debunked fears about the mRNA vaccines’ method of operation. All it is doing is using the protein synthesis machinery in some of your cells to produce the spike protein which the virus uses to enter and infect cells. The only difference between the spike proteins introduced into the body via the traditional method of using attenuated viruses and the mRNA method is the latter method produces a lot more of the spike protein than can be supplied from a single injection of the traditional vaccine methods. That’s why the vaccines were over 90% effective in preventing infection from the original variants before Delta (against which they were still very effective). The danger of the consequences of contracting Covid-19 far exceeds the danger (yes, not zero) from the vaccines. The long term (sadly not long enough) effect of the vaccine is that you’re less likely to get the disease and if you do get it, far less likely to die or be seriously injured.
Madeline introduces links to various websites affiliated with the far right lie machine which are still pushing the long debunked effectiveness of Ivermectin and Hydro chloroquine in treating Covid-19 while grossly exaggerating the dangers from the vaccine.
Before you fall into conspiracy theory thinking when contemplating the creation of two classes of citizens with different access to various forms of participation in various activities which involve sharing air with others, consider the analogy with “Typhoid Mary”. In the early 1900s in New York She was found to be creating outbreaks of Typhus wherever she worked as a symptom-less carrier of the disease. Eventually she was forcibly isolated to prevent further outbreaks. Was that an unreasonable limitation on her freedom or a necessary public health measure? The same idea applies to the vaccine and other mandates. No one is being held down and forcibly vaccinated, but refusing the vaccine means you won’t be allowed to spread the disease by sharing air with others until the emergency is over, at which time your rights will again be the same as those of everyone else. Vaccine hesitant folks, or folks who have fallen for the anti-vaccine propaganda, and especially folks who would like to be vaccinated but can’t for a valid medical reason tolerate the vaccines, should welcome and fully comply with the mandates because the more people who do comply, the sooner the mandates can be lifted, and everyone’s rights can be restored.
The government is far from perfect. The pandemic control measures are far from perfect, but doing nothing is simply not a viable option. Let us not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Even a 30% or so effective flu vaccine helps limit the severity and economic impact of the seasonal flu in proportion to the number of people taking the flu vaccine. Government leaders and public health authorities are not out to kill or enslave us all. That is exactly the kind of conspiracy thinking which is making the likes of Alex Jones rich from the compulsion to keep listening created by his continual hammering of the panic buttons in his fans’ psyches.
It really is largely a pandemic of the un-vaccinated as demonstrated by the fact that the areas with the lowest level of compliance with public health recommendations are the same areas with the highest death and injury rates from Covid-19. We will continue to be playing catch-up with the evolution of the virus as long as a significant fraction of the entire global human population refuses or is unable due to shortages to take the vaccines while they are at their most effective.
Surely this is an issue that humanists and their organizations could investigate and advocate rationally for while avoiding falling into the far right outrage machine’s conspiracy theories which are convincing too many people to eschew the best hope for an end to the emergency: vaccines, masks, and avoiding needless sharing of air in large groups of people.
Ulrich Fischer lives in New Westminster, BC, and is a retired IT professional, life-long supporter of social Justice, and atheist causes. He is a former board member of the BC Humanist Association and is a Board member of The New Enlightenment Project. He has a BSc in Physics and Computer Science.
Leslie Rosenblood, Toronto, ON
Humanist Perspectives published an editorial in its Winter 2021/2022 issue entitled, “A Prescription For Dealing With The Pandemic: Less Fear, More Reason“. I read the piece with some interest, because I had heard of Humanist Perspectives but never read it, and this gave me an opportunity to correct that lacuna. Also, I generally favour addressing pressing issues with reason over fear. The author, Madeline Weld, is a co-editor of Humanist Perspectives and vice-president of Canadian Humanist Publications. Unfortunately, the essay is polemical propaganda, filled with falsehoods presented as facts and logical fallacies sufficient to undermine her thesis. As a result, I am unlikely to read much else published by Humanist Perspectives.
The first sign that the piece does not hew to its promise of “less fear, more reason” is its regular use of loaded language. A few examples:
- “government-mandated discrimination”
- “mainstream media’s suppression of dissenting viewpoints on Covid vaccines and lockdowns”
- “Does anyone remember the Nuremberg Code? Apparently not the Ontario Human Rights Commission”
- “mass hysteria is being fomented […] as they tighten their authoritarian grip on society”
This is hardly the tone to set if one is seeking to foster rational discourse. It is, however, pitch perfect if one’s goal is to foment outrage.
Weld’s opening anecdote is about a downtown Ottawa restaurant. At a rally “against coerced Covid vaccines and rolling lockdowns”, she heard a rumour about a food establishment that served the unvaccinated. When it tells her their policy was “no vax, no service” she concludes that “government inspectors must have gotten to them”, rather acknowledging that a restaurant may quite reasonably insist on operating within the law.
Throughout the editorial, Weld shows a worrying disregard for facts and logic, despite her professed commitment to reason. She seems to prioritize subjective impressions over objective observation: “What I don’t like about the Covid vaccines is that they force a person’s own cells to make a protein that their own immune system will attack. To me, that sounds like asking for trouble.” In other words, according to Weld, there is no need to understand immunology, examine the relative risks of vaccination vs. remaining unvaccinated, or look at any scientific data. “Foreign genetic material” sounds sketchy to her, so the vaccine mandate must be immoral.
She writes, “The death rates in various countries have not shown a year-to-year rise because of Covid”. She chooses a bizarre statistic to defend this contention: “According to Statistics Canada, in 2019 (i.e., pre-Covid), the average age of death was 76.5 years, while the average age of Canadians who died of Covid in 2020 was 83.8 years.” While the linked page does contain those data points, they do not support her claim that Covid did not cause the death rate to rise. In fact, the very same paragraph also states “COVID-19 caused over 15,600 deaths in the country in 2020”. Furthermore, Weld is wrong. The death rate in Canada spiked to 691.4 per 100,000 in 2020, from 654.6 in 2019. This was the highest death rate since 2012. From StatsCan: “Overall, increases in the mortality rates in 2020 were closely aligned with mortality rates directly attributed to COVID-19.” It’s hard to characterize Weld’s statement that covid has not increased death rates as anything but a lie.
Regrettably, the inaccurate presentation of data does not stop there. Weld writes, “it has long since become obvious that the virus presents little risk of severe illness or death for those who are not elderly and do not have comorbidities.” This is little more than wishful thinking. Harvard Medical School tells us, “Adults in the 18 to 39 age range account for about 2.4% of COVID deaths, […] And they may be among the long haulers — people who continue to experience fatigue, brain fog, shortness of breath, or other symptoms weeks and months after their illness.”
Weld declares, “Vaccination does not stop the transmission of the virus; it merely reduces the symptoms.” This is highly misleading. While it’s true even triple-vaccinated adults can contract and spread covid, unvaccinated adults are 13 times more likely to test positive for covid-19 and 68 times more likely to die, according to the CDC. I question the appropriateness of Weld’s use of “merely” to describe these results; we should celebrate the order-of-magnitude reduction in transmission that vaccination brings, and the even larger reduction in mortality. But for Weld, it seems, anything short of perfection renders the entire endeavour ineffective.
I encountered this sort of “logic” a decade ago in a breathtakingly unreliable book.
Weld draws on questionable sources to support her argument.
- She cites the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms in her essay, which has launched a “constitutional challenge in Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice [against] the province’s Covid-19 vaccine passport mandate”. This is an organization that hired a private investigator to follow the Manitoba chief justice. Its founder and president, John Carpay, has compared pride flags to swastikas.
- In her criticism of Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, she links to a Breitbart article, a site that Media Bias / Fact Check states has “extreme right-wing bias, [publishing] conspiracy theories and propaganda as well as numerous false claims.”
- Weld refers to the “20,244 Covid vaccine-related deaths reported to the US Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS)” without mentioning that “VAERS data cannot be used to determine if a vaccine caused an adverse event.” Indeed, research has shown “More than two-thirds of the common side-effects people experience after a Covid jab can be attributed to a negative version of the placebo effect rather than the vaccine itself”.
This is not how one restores reason to public discourse.
From misrepresenting facts and relying on questionable sources, Weld pivots toward pseudoscience. “The political and medical opposition to the therapeutic and preventative use of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) and Ivermectin seems incomprehensible,” she writes. Weld’s stand against covid vaccines (“I am not an anti-vaxxer,” she claims) is due to “no long-term studies assuring us of the safety of the vaccines.” Why, then, is she jumping on the bandwagon for other drugs that have, at best, ambiguous results in covid studies to date? Is Weld aware that there are often vast differences in drug efficacy between lab and animal studies and its effects in humans? Why does she dismiss the recommendations, based on a review of all available data, against the use of hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin for covid-19 from the National Institute of Health? Weld is either woefully ignorant or deliberately dishonest.
Finally, she ends the article by approvingly quoting a German doctor claiming it is “wrong and dangerous to speak of a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” because “vaccinated people also play a significant role in transmitting the virus”. Once again, Weld misleads her readers. We *do* have a pandemic of the unvaccinated. The unvaccinated are more sick, require more care, and spread this disease at far greater rates. Hospitals are not overloaded because there has been a sudden surge in traffic accidents – emergency wards have been over capacity for nearly two years because of the large numbers of unvaccinated patients suffering from covid. As a result, “elective” procedures (brain surgery, hip and knee replacements, heart bypasses, etc.) are being postponed, contributing to excess deaths (though not directly from covid-19). To Weld, claims that the unvaccinated “place an inordinate burden on the healthcare system” is “fear-mongering”. She is wrong.
I do agree with Weld’s final sentence: “Surely this is an issue that humanists and their organizations could weigh in on, on the side of reason.” I hope humanists and their organizations unite to oppose Weld’s shoddily-argued and poorly referenced editorial.
Leslie Rosenblood is the host of Podcast for Inquiry, the official podcast of the Centre for Inquiry Canada (where is also a board member and Secular Chair). He is a founding member of, and policy advisor for, the Canadian Secular Alliance. He lives in Toronto with his four children, and writes about secularism, religion, free speech, and other topics at https://opinionsquestions.blogspot.com/.