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You break it, you buy it

The Village Explainer
You break it, you buy it
By Dan McGarry • Issue #54 • View online
The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.
In this issue, we examine Vanuatu’s hot-and-cold message management relating to COVID-19.

Since long before the pandemic, the government has struggled with messaging
Since long before the pandemic, the government has struggled with messaging
When you take away all the window dressing, misinformation and disinformation are all about who gets the last word.
Mis/disinformation in its essence is the three year-old in all of us that wants to pout and stomp and yell, ‘Shut up all of you and listen to me!’ They carry the room, not with reasoned eloquence, but with inchoate bombasticism.
Deliberately applied by state actors and others attempting to sow disunity, discord and discontent, mis/disinformation becomes a sophisticated and highly-nuanced effort… to pout and stomp and yell ‘Shut up all of you and listen to me!
More politely, it’s attention-seeking for reasons of state.
It follows, then, that countering mis/disinformation is all about getting the last word as well.
Only it isn’t.
It’s not at all about getting the last word. It’s not about shutting people up. It’s about being right—and being persuasively right. It’s about demonstrating consistently and continually that you’re the adult in the conversation, and that the professional cacophonists are not.
It’s about being the one they listen to.
Many of us were deeply concerned back in 2020 when the government of Vanuatu issued an emergency order censoring all media publications, blocking publication of all stories relating to the pandemic that did not originate from the government itself, or from reputable sources such as the WHO, UNICEF and the Red Cross.
The majority of people here did what they did in the face of virtually every other proscription or limitation imposed by the government: They just ignored it and got on with their day.
Perversely, the order proved useful at times. Some social media admins (myself included) were able to justify the deletion of the anti-vax dreck that permeates Facebook by referring to this ridiculous order.
I had a rather pointed exchange with a member of Parliament on this matter. After he posted anti-vaccine rhetoric on his timeline, I took him to task for flouting the government’s own restrictions. To his credit, he took the post down. We chatted afterward about how to end that stupid censorship order, but alas, the opportunity has yet to present.
On its end, the Ministry of Health has done well with its messaging in most regards, and very, very poorly in others. Health Promotions Vanuatu has become a reliable and often authoritative source of information.
For the data nerds, their weekly situation reports are gold. They’re accessible, well organised and generally quite thorough.
A lot of their public messaging is simple and to the point:
Okay, so there's a typo. Sue them.
Okay, so there's a typo. Sue them.
They use leaders from sport and society to get the message across that vaccines are safe and effective by saying, ‘Vaccines are safe and effective.’
Vanuatu's first female Ni Vanuatu supreme court justice smiles after her 2nd dose
Vanuatu's first female Ni Vanuatu supreme court justice smiles after her 2nd dose
Even when things are inconvenient or a bit nuanced, they make an effort to present their key points simply and unambiguously.
And their weekly update infographics are perhaps not inspired, but they’re perfectly clear and serviceable.
Fast forward to this week, when speculation surfaced tying—with nothing more than circumstantial evidence—a victim of an apparent stroke to vaccine-related thrombosis, known as TTS.
What happened? The DG of Health acknowledged the report on national media using language that appeared to validate it, and then Health Promotions, who have done so well so far, rolled out these gems:
tr: 'Vaccines have side effects'
tr: 'Vaccines have side effects'
tr: 'If you experience any, call the number on your card.'
tr: 'If you experience any, call the number on your card.'
tr: 'We'll take care of you, and work to ensure it doesn't happen to others.'
tr: 'We'll take care of you, and work to ensure it doesn't happen to others.'
tr: 'We'll keep you informed when these things happen.'
tr: 'We'll keep you informed when these things happen.'
Obviously these date from before the incident. But is this the best they had to offer at a moment when a clear, succinct message matters most? Surely this wasn’t the only contingency?
To add insult to injury, after one Facebook admin removed a post showing a photo of the person involved and explicitly speculating that their tragic illness could have been caused by the Astra Zeneca vaccine, they were contacted and told that the ‘guidance’ from the Ministry of Health was to leave the post up, ‘for transparency.’
This is the point where we step from performance to governance.
It’s one thing to threaten people with fines and even imprisonment if you speak out of turn. That’s lamentable, but not unprecedented in times of emergency.
It’s another thing to make those threats, and then allow people to flout them without even a pretence of enforcement.
But providing ‘guidance’ about which posts we should flout those orders with? That’s just taking the piss.
The government of Vanuatu has struggled with its duty to inform the public since independence. There has always been a knee-jerk tendency to think that voters and other malcontents should be seen and not heard, and definitely not challenge anything the ‘big men’ say.
(Yes, they’re all men. Could that have something to do with it…?)
Health Promotions Vanuatu is a canny and mostly positive reaction to the orders establishing Public Health as the sole source of authoritative pronouncements on the pandemic. In many ways, it’s gone above and beyond the call.
But every time we veer toward crisis, there’s a bunch of entitled people up top who snatch the megaphone away from the actual experts, spout whatever comes into their heads, and skew things further than they were already skewed.
It’s like they have a gift for it.
I spoke with a Ni Vanuatu doctor about this case. Neither of us are familiar with the patient’s details, and we wouldn’t have discussed the particulars in any case, out of respect for patient confidentiality.
But one point he did make was that Vila Central Hospital sees about 300 stroke victims every year. He guessed that hundreds more went undiagnosed and untreated. Whether this one was one of those 300 or whether it was number 301 will be verified in due course. It’s a crisis for this person and their family. But it’s one of hundreds annually in the capital alone.
He highlighted the fact that even if this person’s illness is determined to have been caused by the vaccine, the calculus for all adults is still exactly the same: The risk of COVID-19—to individuals, and to a largely unvaccinated society—is vastly greater than the risk of this vaccine.
In fact, he said, one of the major causes of serious illness and death from COVID-19 is blood clots caused by the body’s massive, cascading immune response. So the risk of a deadly clot is higher without the vaccine than with it.
He reminded me that the specific thrombosis caused by Astra Zeneca can be easily detected using equipment readily available to doctors in Nouméa, where the patient is being treated.
In short, all anyone had to say is:
Wait for the test results before raising the alarm. Leave it to the doctors to tell us what happened. Remember that the risks from vaccination are tiny compared to the certainty of illness and death when COVID reaches our shores. We’re in a race against time, and we can’t allow doubt to slow us down.
But no. Instead they assured people that anyone who is adversely affected by the vaccine can claim compensation. (Protip: That’s not reassuring. It’s more likely to cause a flood of self-misdiagnosis.) Rather than putting the remote but real possibility of TTS into context, they validate our society’s worst gadflies, even to the extent of encouraging responsible admins to leave the speculation out there.
It is to weep.
Public Health can’t have it both ways. Either you have a monopoly on health information, or you don’t. You can tell us not to publish. You can tell us to publish only your material. But you cannot tell us when it’s alright to flout your own orders.
Now we’ve come to a moment when the issue of who gets the last word matters, and they’re willing to drop the megaphone on the floor. All I can say is: You break it, you buy it.
Did you enjoy this issue?
Dan McGarry

The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

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Dan McGarry - Port Vila, Vanuatu