British Columbia

'Misinformation can kill people': Friends and family grieve loss of loved ones who refused COVID vaccines

Friends and family members of people who have died from COVID-19 after not getting vaccinated are expressing their grief and regret that they were not able to convince their loved ones to take the advice of public health officials.

Experts say mistrust in government and disinformation are major factors in people not getting vaccinated

Lack of trust in governments and online misinformation can be a fatal combination when it impacts public health, according to Ahmen Al-Rawi, an assistant professor at SFU's School of Communication who specializes in disinformation. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Phil Flett's friends describe him as "a mountain of a man" who loved entertaining people and cooking for them in the outdoor kitchen he built in his backyard.

"He was a hell of a guy —larger than life," said Rob Dubuc whose friendship with Flett spanned more than two decades.

"[He was] a jack of all trades, a hard worker and Phil just loved doing the social thing. I was always over [at his house] for the barbecues and he made his own pizza oven."

Flett, 62, died last Saturday after catching COVID-19.

Now, his friends are speaking out to express their grief over the loss of the charismatic man, who wouldn't get vaccinated despite their pleas for him to listen to the advice of public health officials.

Flett's friends described how he often spent his summers in Kelowna, B.C., and his winters in Mexico and had big plans to retire there.

"Phil had it all planned out. He had his mortgage figured out. He would sell the house, would be travelling, he had a motor coach under redevelopment that he would live in. He had a 40-foot sailboat that he kept in Mexico where he spent his winters," said Uli Rudolph, another close friend.

Phil Flett showing off the catch of the day on his sailboat on the Gulf of Mexico, where he spent his winters prior to the pandemic. (Submitted by Kim Alaric)

Rudolph said he and Flett were very close, but differences in their thinking about the pandemic strained their relationship.

"Phil was one to listen to those who would preach in his right ear about conspiracies and vaccinations being poisonous, the New World Order, all of this," Rudolph said.

"And it was hard to listen to."

Flett's friends said he was firm in his belief that he could beat the disease if he caught it, despite their warnings of the aggressiveness of the delta variant that is sweeping through the Kelowna area.

Rudolph said he was heartbroken to learn last month Flett was in hospital and not doing well.

Flett died last Saturday, three weeks after catching COVID-19. 

Rudolph said he believes misinformation played a big part in his death.

"It was a complete and utter colossal waste of a good life," he said. "He had everything going for him."  

In Kamloops, B.C, Indigenous man Tyrone Joseph's life has also been touched by COVID.

His sister Anna Joseph has a severe case of the disease and is now in a medically induced coma in a Vancouver hospital.

"When I learned that she was not vaccinated, it didn't seem like her because she is not necessarily like an anti-vaxxer," Joseph said. "I've since learned that some members of her family are."

Anna Joseph, as seen her with her granddaughter Kaliah, is suffering from a severe case of COVID-19 and is currently in hospital in Vancouver in a medically-induced coma. (Tyrone Joseph)

Joseph said while he has been vaccinated, many of his friends and relatives have chosen not to get their shots.

He attributes that to the deep mistrust he says many Indigenous people feel toward public health officials and governments because of the dark history of residential schools.

"The messaging from public health and government officials it's meaningless," Joseph said.   

"We are very distrustful and we need to hear from our own people or our own family members." 

'Misinformation can kill people'

Mistrust in governments and misinformation online are major factors in people's decisions to not get vaccinated, according to Ahmed Al-Rawi, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University's School of Communication in B.C. who specializes in disinformation.

"Misinformation can kill people. That's the bottom line here," Al-Rawi said.

Disinformation becomes a public health concern when it influences peoples' health choices around vaccines, he said.

"A lot of people end up regretting not doing enough or not taking the vaccine and that is the sad thing about misinformation," he said.

According to Al-Rawi, public figures and influencers have a lot of power in swaying people's opinions on the pandemic and vaccines in both a positive and a negative direction.

He points to the recent example of Trinidadian-born rapper Nicki Minaj's erroneous viral tweet alleging the vaccine causes impotence as one that can cause harm.

Al-Rawi said people can influence their friends and family in positive ways by encouraging them to consider what public health officials are saying about vaccines and the pandemic. 

"The impact of the word of mouth — you are more likely to be influenced by people you trust around you, like your circles or friends and family members," he said.

Meanwhile, Tyrone Joseph is using his influence to reach people in his community. He took to social media to share his sister's story, and is reaching out to family members to encourage them to get vaccinated.

"My own brother, who is also a bit of a conspiracy theorist, he told me this morning he went and got his shot," Joseph said.

"It is unfortunate it took such a drastic measure to really make this a personal message and mission, but at least we are now talking."

with files from Daybreak South and Daybreak Kelowna

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