View from the ground, by Dr Sandesh Gulhane

Photo of Dr Sandesh Gulhane

Dr Sandesh Gulhane

Has anyone watched Snakes on a plane, the movie from 2006 starring Samuel L. Jackson? For those of you who have not, Samuel is stuck on a plane and there are killer snakes on board, which is all you need to know.

I feel that we are living through the real-world equivalent, with COVID-19 as the aforementioned snakes. It is scary, there are unprecedented things happening, and it seems as if we are in constant chaos. In the film, no-one on board the plane is denying the existence of these snakes, but in the real world—despite the fact that people are getting sick and dying—we have people camped outside accident and emergency departments chanting that COVID-19 is a hoax.

To take this analogy a little further, Samuel L. Jackson is like the vaccine, calmly trying to bring us hope. However, in real life, do we believe in the vaccine? Some of the shocking myths about the COVID-19 vaccine I have come across include:

  • it changes your DNA
  • there is alcohol/pork/beef/human embryo in it
  • it allows 5G broadband networks to track us
  • it does not work
  • the timing of doses and the brand of the vaccine you receive are critical.

These are all lies that have been spread maliciously. We need people to disbelieve them and, if in doubt, speak to their GPs.

There is significant hesitancy in vaccine uptake within the Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) community, which may relate to past actions of big pharmaceutical companies and mistrust of official institutions. This hesitancy has been further propagated by fake news stories across social media. However, the community most at risk from COVID-19 is the community not receiving the vaccine.1

Reluctance to receive the vaccine reflects a failure on the part of the NHS to gain the trust required within these communities. We know that patients from BAME groups have poorer satisfaction with and worse outcomes from their interactions with health services than other patients,2 and we need to do something about this. We must try to understand our patients’ cultures and communicate effectively to rebuild the trust that is missing.

GPs are ideally placed to do this, because we are at the heart of the community and see these patients grow from children to adults. Hospitals must also play their part and need to work on being less daunting places for BAME patients to attend when addressing health inequalities.

Previously, I wrote a Guidelines in Practice article in which I told readers that I was scared of the approaching COVID-19 crisis. A year later, I am no longer scared; now, I am angry and upset that people are actively trying to sabotage the health of others and the nation. When a famous person uses their platform to deny COVID-19 and belittles the strategy to prevent its spread, they are effectively laughing at the millions of people suffering as a result of contracting COVID-19 or watching their loved ones die.

In my opinion, the biggest culprit for false news is WhatsApp. The reason for this is that the text arrives from a trusted source—it is someone you have given your number to. Sent by a friend or colleague, the message carries greater weight than from a stranger on Twitter or Instagram. This message is then forwarded on. I myself have been forwarded many fake news messages and have challenged the sender to explain the source and the ‘facts’. I also break the chain by not forwarding it on—it is by doing this that we can dispel these myths and try to ensure that we do not have these issues again in future.

I am optimistic that, over the next year or so, we will provide the vaccine to most people in the UK. However, it is not just our island that needs to be vaccinated, but the whole world, and that will take time. Travel feeds the soul; for now, we must feast on the beauty of our own country, but in time, I want my children to see their extended family in India and to experience different cultures in order to become more rounded human beings. We need more confidence to travel again and vaccination and basic safety precautions will certainly help in the short term to make this a possibility.

Everyone has had their working lives turned upside down during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there has been a leap forward for GPs in the uptake of new technology and this is something that is here to stay. We need to return to a hybrid model, not the old days of waiting rooms full of patients feeling annoyed that their day is being wasted.

Like the film (spoiler alert!), I am hopeful of a happy ending, but we all need to be pulling in the same direction. When doctors say that people are dying, they must be believed; in return, we need to improve the levels of satisfaction that patients derive from interactions with the health service, and ensure that outcomes are equal for all patients.

Dr Sandesh Gulhane

GP, Glasgow

References

  1. Public Health England. Disparities in the risk and outcomes of COVID-19. London: PHE, 2020. Available at: assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/908434/Disparities_in_the_risk_and_outcomes_of_COVID_August_2020_update.pdf
  2. DH, Office for National Statistics. Report on the self reported experience of patients from black and minority ethnic groups. London: DH, ONS, 2009. Available at: assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/213375/BME-report-June-09-FINAL3.pdf