From plots of global domination to teams of scientists working in secret labs, Covid-19 ignited a storm of conspiracy theories when it arrived on the world scene.
For well over a year now, social media has been abuzz with theories conceivable or otherwise, with some pinning the blame on shadowy figures seeking a new world order and others pointing the finger at pharmaceutical giants out to make a killing from selling the cure.
Most if not all of these claims have been debunked or denied yet many remain sceptical of official assurances.
The same scepticism extends to the various immunisation programmes being rolled out across the world as well as the vaccines provided.
In Malaysia, the government aims to achieve herd immunity by getting at least 80% of the population – about 27 million people – vaccinated by the end of the year.
“The negative information about vaccines that the anti-vaxxers receive will be processed in the working memory and then stored in the ‘hard disk’ of the brain.”
As of June 1, only some 12 million had registered for the national immunisation programme. The reasons for this are manifold: some lack awareness about the situation, some are reluctant to get jabbed due to concerns about safety and side-effects, and others are outright against it.
Psychologist Dr Mariani Md Nor, a professor at SEGi University, said the latter group, known colloquially as anti-vaxxers, have been around for a long time.
“They have their perceptions and beliefs about vaccines,” she said, adding that this had contributed to the proliferation of conspiracy theories.
Speaking to MalaysiaNow, she said much of the issue is rooted in misinformation.
“There are so-called experts on social media sharing negative information about the vaccines,” she said, adding that the mind could become overloaded with such details.
When this happens, age does not make much of a difference as both youngsters and the elderly could be affected, she said.
Another issue arises when a person knows nothing about vaccines and will accept any information given.
“The negative information about vaccines that the anti-vaxxers receive will be processed in the working memory and then stored in the ‘hard disk’ of the brain.
“It is difficult to change these people, especially the strong anti-vaxxers,” she said, adding that they in turn are capable of influencing others around them.
“When you come into contact with something unknown, fear will push you away from understanding it.”
To combat this, effective communication is needed, especially among family members, she said.
“To persuade your family members to take the vaccine, you need to educate them by providing evidence. Otherwise, they might access the wrong information.”
In terms of vaccination rate, Malaysia has kept pace with many other countries with similar or larger population size.
As of May 29, 5.9% of people in Malaysia had received at least a first jab, with Khairy Jamaluddin, the minister in charge of the national immunisation programme, saying millions more doses of vaccine would be arriving in the next two months.
But vaccine hesitancy across the world is jeopardising hopes of a quick road to herd immunity. A recent Gallup poll reported by The Economist which surveyed 300,000 people across 117 countries found that only 68% of adults would agree to be vaccinated if a free jab were available to them while 29% said they would refuse outright.
Dr Fauziah Mohd Sa’ad, a counselling psychologist at Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris, singled out fear as the main reason behind the attitude of anti-vaxxers.
“When you come into contact with something unknown, fear will push you away from understanding it,” she said.
“When someone is fearful, that person will be prone to emotional disorders and abnormal behaviour.”
She said similar behaviour was seen when news first broke about the virus: some were driven to panic by their fear of the novel coronavirus.
Others meanwhile accept everything they read at face value and spread it far and wide without first checking the facts.
“Every vaccine has its complications but not necessarily everyone will experience this,” Fauziah said.
“The anti-vax group often magnifies certain isolated cases and treats them like common cases. Then they spread it around on social media.”
But she and Mariani both agreed that giving up on this group would do nothing to help bring an end to the pandemic. The key, they said, is to keep educating them. For if herd immunity is the goal, then everyone will need to be on board.