“For a few reasons, this town has become an epicentre for business – and for business that touts itself as alternative medicine or wellness or people selling an alternative story,” Dr Heap, who appears in an SBS Dateline tonight, told news.com.au.
“The thing about selling an alternative story is – it’s marketing 101. First you have to find a niche market, and then you’ve got to try and sell it. And what I think people have found around here is they’ve found very fertile ears – people who are maybe a bit distrustful of authority, wanting to step away from the mainstream, who don’t have very good health literacy – so they’ve got fertile ground.
“And then they’ve done some really, really clever, dangerous marketing that is selling the story that mainstream is bad. And therefore if you can persuade people that mainstream is bad and ‘don’t trust the people that tell you mainstream is good’, then you can sell an alternative message, and you can make a living from it.
“Unfortunately, sometimes that causes harm – because mainstream preventive medicine can be absolutely amazing. And unfortunately by selling the message that it’s harmful so you can sell an alternative, it means people are rejecting stuff that would otherwise do them a lot of good.”
Vaccinating against COVID-19 is the easiest way for Australians to get their normal lives back, but millions are hesitant to get the jab.
News.com.au’s Our Best Shot campaign answers your questions about the COVID-19 vaccine roll out.
We’ll debunk myths about vaccines, answer your concerns about the jab and tell you when you can get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Vaccine hesitancy has been identified as one of Australia’s biggest hurdles to achieve COVID-19 immunity, with a recent poll finding that a third of people intend to refuse the jab.
Health illiteracy, being vulnerable to misinformation, not critically thinking and not being able to critically assess the things that you’re reading are all contributing factors, Dr Heap said.
“It’s going to need a many-pronged approach to try and overcome it or to help the population see how they’re being misled,” she said.
“Essentially, people are being conned. And it’s really hard to help people come to the realisation that they’re being conned, because if you realise that, then you feel shame or you’re embarrassed to even try and admit it. So you have to break through a lot of barriers.”
What has become apparent, Dr Heap added, “is if people can believe something ridiculous like 5G could cause COVID, there’s a gap in people’s education”.
“If you understood how bodies worked and if you understood how electromagnetic radiation worked, you couldn’t be vulnerable to these lies because it would be blindingly obvious that it was rubbish.”
The NRVS is a group aimed not at “fighting the people who spread” misinformation about getting vaccinated, but providing “good information so that people can make informed decisions”.
“That’s all we want to do … We’re not telling people what to do, we just want to help people make informed decisions,” Dr Heap explained.
“But you can only make good, informed decisions if you’ve got good data to make those informed decisions on, and that means knowing what’s true and what’s false, but also being provided with the good information so you can see what makes sense.”
Being that voice of reason – in a time when not just the efficacy of vaccines but the existence of the pandemic itself has been conspiracy theorist’s fodder – can feel “genuinely overwhelming”.
“It’s pretty awful, it’s pretty distressing, it’s pretty confronting. My family are in England, I’ve got friends all over the world who have been utterly devastated by this,” Dr Heap said.
“I’ve looked after patients with COVID and I’ve come from looking after them only to drive through an anti-5G protest. It’s a really good way to get burnt out.
“And it does feel genuinely overwhelming when you’re faced with such a tsunami of misinformation … It feels like my voice is a very little one against the juggernaut of misinformation that’s coming out of extraordinarily well-funded sources.”
Dr Heap is no stranger to what happens when people are misinformed – in March, anti-vaxxers took the photo she had taken of herself after receiving her first AstraZeneca dose and essentially killed her off.
“Sadly, moments after her vaccination, this lady passed out and fell into a coma … she is still not conscious … doctors fear she will not recover,” one Byron Bay anti-vaxxer wrote, alongside the image.
“It was clearly not true, and such an obvious lie and so easy to debunk,” Dr Heap said of the incident.
“But the problem is, by the time somebody has told that lie, there’s no point rebutting. People hear the rumour and the rumour is enough. And if anything, it demonstrated how easily and readily people lie about stuff, and if you can lie about something so obvious, imagine what else other people are lying about?”
Battle for the Vaccine Hesitant airs on SBS Dateline tonight at 9.30pm.