It was only a matter of time before anti-vaxxers joined the protests against stay-at-home orders. Their main cause puts personal choice (which supposedly benefits only them) before public health (which benefits everyone). The stay-at-home orders, on the other hand, make public health more important than personal choice — everyone’s right to stay healthy is more important than someone’s personal desire to go to Target, visit a house of worship, or attend a drum circle. We’ve always known anti-vaxxers shout that personal freedom pitch, no matter what their politics: they belong to that weird Venn diagram where far-right overlaps with crunchy anti-vaxxers in the name of “personal freedom.”
The anti-vaxxers and the typical stay-at-home protesters make for some strange bedfellows. The New York Times notes that at a recent stay-at-home rally organized by anti-vaxxers, there were also Tea Party activists, armed militia groups, and Confederate-flag-wavers. All were tied together by that one belief that personal freedom trumps (pardon the pun) the need for public health measures.
This is not the time for that.
Hello, Public Health Disaster
This is bad. Very, very bad. Though Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Amazon have cracked down, anti-vaxxers have already managed to convince enough parents not to vaccinate that several states have dropped below the predicted threshold for measles herd immunity (the point where enough vaccinated people would prevent the spread of the disease), says The New York Times. In an online survey, the American Osteopathic Association found that only 55% of Americans expressed no doubts about the safety of vaccines. On the other hand, 82% said that either “the benefits of vaccination outweigh the potential risks of vaccine side effects” or “think vaccines are safe and effective.”
That leaves us with 18% of Americans who believe neither of those statements. The Pew Research Institution found that 10% of Americans found that the risks of the MMR vaccine outweigh the benefits — and that’s an established vaccine with a proven track record of prevention. Moreover, 17% of adults think “parents should be able to decide not to vaccinate their children, even if that may create health risks for other children and adults.” A January 2020 Gallup poll found that 86% of adults say “vaccines are not more dangerous than the diseases they prevent”… leaving us with another 14% who think vaccines are dangerous.
Now, anti-vaxxers are accusing Bill Gates of dropping microchips in vaccines for the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, (yes, that is a real conspiracy and it’s false). The scary part? According to the New York Times, this outright lie first came from an organization called QAnon, a fringe conspiracy theorist group — and the anti-vaxxers adopted it. There’s cross-pollination going on, despite the groups’ differences in opinion over other issues. And that’s scary: it helps the anti-vaxxers get their messages out more effectively.
In 2019, the World Health Organization said that vaccine hesitancy is one of the world’s top ten public health risks, reported NPR. Epidemiologist and vaccine educator Raj Najera tells NPR that we saw the effects of that: the US eradication of measles was put at risk. People refusing a COVID-19 vaccine could, as the New York Times reports, “harm the United States’ ability to turn a corner following the pandemic if Americans do not accept a future vaccine.”
The results of that? The virus and its resulting disease, COVID-19, would keep circulating through the population.
If we don’t stay at home, like the anti-vaxxers are now clamoring for, because it’s some kind of violation of personal freedom, the mortality numbers will just keep rising.
What The Anti-Vaxxers Think We Need Instead
Anti-vaxxers don’t think we need vaccine-induced immunity. Instead, we need what they call “natural immunity”: everyone should get COVID-19! That’s because natural immunity, which the anti-vaxxers want, is different from vaccine-induced immunity. Immunity itself, says the CDC, is the result of antibodies to a certain disease circulating in a person’s system. These antibodies stop specific diseases. Infection with an actual disease — i.e., getting sick and suffering the consequences thereof, which can be pretty dire in the case of COVID-19 — is “natural immunity.” Instead, we’re opting for “vaccine-induced immunity”: a kind of immunity in which you develop antibodies through the use of a vaccine. The advantage? You don’t get sick.
Both natural immunity and vaccine-induced immunity are kinds of “active immunity,” and with most known viruses they are generally “long-lasting or life-long.” With this virus, however, experts are unsure about the duration of natural immunity. According to the BBC, the new coronavirus, called Sars-CoV-2, has not been around long enough to know how long immunity lasts.
Moreover, getting to natural immunity would ultimately result in a catastrophic number of deaths. California Democratic state senator Dr. Richard Pan told Capital Public Radio (based in Sacramento, California), that natural immunity would cause “a lot of suffering and death.” As of May 13, the models for COVID-19 mortality rates until June 6 are beginning to merge, and it appears we’ll have lost about 110,000 Americans to the virus by that point, a biostatistician tells NPR. That’s with all the stay-at-home orders and social distancing.
Pause to shudder for the unchecked pandemic so desired by the anti-vaxxers, please.
Vaccine-acquired active immunity, on the other hand, “doesn’t cause people to get hospitalized and die in the process of achieving it,” says Dr. Pan.
Anti-Vaxxers Are Latchers
Najera told NPR that anti-vaxxers like to latch onto controversial issues, like the stay-at-home order, which bring them visibility… and funds. Dr. Pan, who also talked to NPR, says that anti-vaxxers, especially Freedom Angels, who led a large protest in California, like to line up with other homegrown American grassroots movements to bring visibility to their cause. These protests give them “media attention” and help them fundraise, he tells NPR, “So, frankly, many of the anti-vaxxers who are involved in this are really there for their own interests.”
In other words: people might not even be upset about supposed “violations of personal freedom” when the government tells us to stay home. They could be trying to mobilize other fringe groups to join the cause, believe their faux science, and mistrust the government.
Aside From Public Health …
This spells bad news for another reason. As these fringe groups get together at the same COVID-19 laden, lack-of-social-distancing, no-masking protests, Devin Burghart, who runs the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, a Seattle-based research center on far right groups, told the New York Times, “There is a tremendous amount of cross-pollinization of ideas as these factions get to know each other.”
Dr. Rupali J. Limaye, who studies behavior around vaccines at Johns Hopkins University, also tells the New York Times that, “One of the things we’re finding is that the rhetoric is pretty similar between the anti-vaxxers and those demanding to reopen… What we hear a lot of is ‘individual self management’ — this idea that they should be in control of making decisions, that they can decide what science is correct and incorrect, and that they know what’s best for their child.”
In other words, the Tea Partiers start to become anti-vaxxers, who start to believe and spread conspiracy theories, like Bill Gates is trying to take over the global health system. Anti-vaxxers’ beliefs about personal freedom from any government mandate are aligning with those of American militias, who may become anti-vaxxers themselves… and the beliefs spread. This is emphatically not the time to spread the mistrust of vaccinations, which could hamper the chance to eradicate the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.
Any way you slice it, anti-vaxxers at stay-at-home rallies are not good. Their very existence and rhetoric may extend the pandemic, and the more they spread it, the more chances they have to, pardon the pun, infect the rest of the population. Sane people may believe them, and others may add their anti-vax rhetoric to their tomato soup of already fringe rhetoric.
But the right to free speech apparently includes the right to violate stay-at-home orders designed to protect you from COVID-19 while screaming about said stay-at-home orders in the company of those who could be infected with COVID-19. While not wearing a mask. And refusing vaccinations.
Welcome to America. Don’t inject the disinfectant.