“No, I don’t trust the timing” - Distrust In The Time Of COVID-19

Phone with text on covid symptomsWritten by Loren Gordon Bsc Student. Anthropology Department, Faculty of Social Science.


Over the summer, I returned home to Jamaica for a few weeks. While writing my summer reading course paper, I asked questions about the pandemic and vaccination. I knew that for some people, asking about vaccination statuses and the factors behind those choices may be a little touchy, but I figured that if you never ask, you will never know. Armed with guidance from my professor in anthropology, I soon realized these discussions could inform the final part of my reading course paper: the personal reflection section. My research paper was on ‘distrust’, and the vaccine certainly was a powerful starting point for me to reflect on this topic in dialogue with the people I had known all my life. 

From the pandemic’s start, rumours and conspiracy theories spread around Jamaica quite quickly. Due to the influence, the church has in the lives of many Jamaicans, the position of each church regarding the vaccine also affected vaccine hesitancy and refusal. By the time I had gone home, I felt I had seen or heard it all - COVID-19 cure-all teas, biblical theories, and many other remedies. I knew people who were adamant that the vaccine was essential. I also knew people who refused to take it. A childhood friend of mine, who was and is still unvaccinated, spoke about his unwillingness to take the vaccine. I asked him why, especially since the rest of his family are vaccinated. He responded by saying that not only did he not trust the vaccine itself, but he also did not trust the timing of the vaccine. He believed that the vaccine was rushed, and at the rate at which it developed, it was unsafe. No matter how much we spoke about it, and I told him about the prior research that BioNTech had conducted for years before COVID-19, he still was adamant in his stance. He did not believe the potential pros of taking the vaccine would outweigh the cons.

Another person who is well known to me refused to take the vaccine as she was told by a family member that the vaccine is what would harm her. As a woman in her 80s with underlying health issues, she was and is still concerned about her health. She is very careful about what she puts into her body, scrutinizing the ingredient list on packages. You might think that she would be enticed to take the vaccine due to her health challenges and her healthy lifestyle, but the priority she placed on her health did the opposite. From word of mouth, rumours, fears and distrust, she has stayed adamant that the vaccine would be more harmful to her health than contracting the disease itself.

I noticed that distrust and rumours work hand in hand. Rumours had fuelled the distrust and influenced many Jamaicans’ willingness to be vaccinated. Two prevailing rumours I heard linked the vaccine to the mark of the beast and suggested the vaccine created sterility in men. In my conversations, I saw that distrust was a complex issue and that the cause differed for each person. At the same time, institutions like the religious organizations which permeate Jamaican society also contribute to whether there is trust or distrust within specific communities. I learned, for example, that some churches promote prayer and faith as necessary for avoiding COVID-19, furthering the narrative of vaccines being dangerous and the general belief that it was the vaccine that was spreading COVID-19.

Distrust is hard to define - there is no sole reason that everyone distrusts something (such as a vaccine). Instead, it is a multifaceted and complex concept. Distrust may stem from differing values, skepticism, or a gut feeling which impacts how people respond to each other, but overall distrust can be thought of as “a mental state caused by the threat of being deceived” (Schul et al., 2008).  I concluded that distrust probably wouldn’t have a simple solution. Yes, I know that might make me seem like a bit of a pessimist, but how can we target and alleviate all the different fears - fear of death, fear of sterility, fear of needles, the fear of God - when these fears are all rooted in unique life perspectives?

With the widespread availability of technology, it is incredibly easy for rumours to spread around through social media platforms. As the pandemic spread, borders closed, work from home became the norm, and people became uncertain about their futures, social media platforms carried lightning-fast stories from all over the world. Though many of these stories were first-hand accounts, they also were unverified “As more individuals share information on social media, the accuracy and factuality have become more difficult to verify” (Bourne et. al., 2022). With each share, these stories, videos, or audio messages reach more people.

After a few weeks, I returned to Canada. While finalising my summer paper, I kept remembering the different views I had encountered. Each time I turned on the news and saw COVID-19 vaccine-related news, I could not help but reflect on what I had learnt, the nuance that big headlines sometimes miss, and the individual experiences and concerns, connections to trusted leaders or family sources of information, that can underlie when and why people might distrust recommended best health practices. What may have started as a paper and exploration turned into much more for me. I was able to understand the anthropological principles such as holism and cultural relativism, which I had learnt in class in a real-world setting. These principles, which I had encountered in my readings, now became more realistic. Through this, I also realized that I would like to pursue a Master’s degree in Global Health as my next step after completing my undergraduate degree.









Bourne, P. A., Brown, J., Hoyte, T., & Rowe, L. (2022, February). Is the Degree of Social Media usage Influencing COVID-19 Vaccinations in Jamaica? Research Gate. Retrieved February 10, 2023, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/358508497_Is_the_Degree_of_Social_Media_usage_Influencing_COVID-19_Vaccinations_in_Jamaica

Schul, Y., Mayo, R., & Burnstein, E. (2008, May). The Value of Distrust. Science Direct. Retrieved February 10, 2023, from https://www-sciencedirect-com.proxy1.lib.uwo.ca/science/article/pii/S0022103108000760?ref=cra_js_challenge&fr=RR-1



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