Cand shall we inaugurate a Bafta for the most patient TV hosts? Mathematician and science podcaster Prof Hannah Fry needs a treat for Unvaccinated (BBC Two), a documentary that requires an almost sacred level of tolerance just to watch, let alone be there.
Fry brings together seven of the roughly 4million Brits who have chosen not to receive a Covid vaccine in hopes of understanding them better. The unvaccinated septet gathers in one of these cozy homes TV producers feel compelled to shut down if their documentary could become a reality TV event — although since no one actually moves in, that’s the only consequence of Fry having a Series of debates in rooms that look badly ventilated, making them brave both physically and intellectually.
In any case, the Prof first refers to a survey carried out for the program, which showed that a surprising number of vaccination refusers fear minor side effects such as headaches or arm pain. Fry thought a bit about “No-Cebos” – that if you get an injection and expect a side effect, it might lead you to believe you’ll suffer from it afterwards, inflating the relevant numbers. In studies, people who are unaware that they received a sham vaccine routinely insist that they have the side effects.
Before Fry is done, Vicky, 43, from Cambridge – who describes herself as ‘strongly opinionated’ – steams in and loudly states that heart inflammation is a side effect of the Covid vaccine that cannot be faked; that this is their main concern, meaning that headaches are “irrelevant”; and that sometimes you really have a headache anyway, don’t you?
In the last two and a half years we have all met a Vicky, online if not in person, but it feels immensely uncomfortable to see the normal protocols of friendly, rational BBC science programs being destroyed; Fry looks shocked that someone would just recklessly brush over an argument they obviously didn’t understand. One of Vicky’s interlocutors, Chanelle, feels compelled to intercede on Fry’s behalf.
As the professor’s next set piece, she puts 20 jelly beans on the table and invites the participants to have a snack. Someone takes out of the 20 what is sour and unpleasant. Unhappy! Then Fry says it would take 33,000 beans on the table to simulate the likelihood of myocarditis – the heart infection Vicky was afraid of – from a Covid vaccine. Vicky says the illustration is “frustrating”, claims “thousands” of people have died or been injured from Covid stitches and stormed out.
As the program progresses, it becomes a useful compendium of annoyingly common misconceptions. Pfizer’s published list of potential or rare side effects has been mistaken for a list of common symptoms; The practice of constantly retesting vaccines because they are constantly evolving has been mistaken for a situation exposing the public to experimental, untested drugs. Fry also has a reluctance to explain non-causal relationships: The person you read about online who developed a serious medical condition the day after the vaccination is not strong evidence that the vaccination is unsafe.
Eventually this myth busting starts to come home. Not getting vaccinated, however, is not a one-way process of rationality playfully chomping at hard dogma. As we learn about the different types of skeptics in the group, we can empathize with where their beliefs come from, even if the beliefs themselves are crazy. Luca for example, a man who lives alone and spends a lot of time on Facebook, may be very wrong in believing that Covid vaccines contain microchips that will kill you once your local 5G transmitter is on, but his starting point is disgust at big pharma’s profit motive, which is far less wrong.
The trickiest customer is Chanelle, who floundered at Vicky’s inability to keep an open mind. Pregnant at 38, Chanelle is smart, articulate and, as a black woman with a keen knowledge of her community’s history, aware that the medical establishment has not served people like her well. I confess I still don’t understand why she wasn’t influenced by statistics on the dangers of covid infection for a baby, against the tiny risk of the vaccine – this is one of many scenes where unfortunately no time questioning a participant’s point of view is right for that – but it’s hard to dismiss.
Two months into their originally intense week together, Fry is reunited with the seven volunteers at a vaccination center, where she asks each of them if they would like to get vaccinated now. That will not go well. But in the Professor’s gentle, experienced hands, the naysayers were—slowly, painfully—being brought a little closer to the light.