By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
In this time of Covid-19, our nation seems beset by an endless societal madness.
First there were the persistent claims that Covid was a hoax, despite hospitals being overwhelmed by Covid cases and deaths. Then there was the refusal to take the simple protective measure of wearing a mask; the mocking and intimidation of those who did wear masks; public tantrums; and even shootings when store employees or fellow customers asked a non-masker to don one. Even some officials—senators and congressmen—from whom one expects a degree of maturity and leadership, joined in the refusals.
Now we have at least three vaccines and an Administration that is attempting to help as many people as possible get vaccinated. But some of those in rebellious denial of the problem are not only refusing to save themselves, but are actively attempting to prevent others from obtaining vaccinations. In January, a group of anti-vaccine protesters briefly shut down a mass inoculation site at LA’s Dodger Stadium; in February, Florida anti-vaxxers shouted and waved signs, harassing healthcare workers waiting in line to enter a Tampa sports stadium for shots.
Anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories range from the notion that Covid-19 is a plague created to shut down churches to the charge that the Bill Gates is using Covid vaccines to implant microchips that will track us with digital IDs.
The vaccines have been called “bioweapons” by anti-vaxxers. Some have even claimed that vaccinated people are “shedding mutant viruses.” (The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines don’t contain any virus at all, so could not shed virus, mutant or otherwise. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine contains an inactivated common cold virus, which likewise would not shed.)
Meanwhile, the more people that are vaccinated, the more likely we are to reach herd immunity, making the spread of the virus from person to person unlikely. That would protect the entire community, not just those who are immune. Contrariwise, as reported by Rolling Stone in February in “How the Anti-Vaxxers Got Red-Pilled,” “the larger the group of unvaccinated individuals, the more chance the virus can mutate to pose a danger, even to the already vaccinated.” The magazine quoted physician Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health: “Large outbreaks anywhere can give rise to variants that can escape vaccines everywhere…It’s the nightmare scenario of a never-ending pandemic.”
It has been argued that we should not label anti-vaxxers as crazy because it will further alienate them, and make it more difficult to convince them to get vaccinated. And admittedly, there are legitimate reasons to feel cautious about vaccines, especially when they are new.
Wishing to wait a period of time to see what side effects or problems might arise from a new vaccine is not unreasonable. This was particularly true for the Covid vaccines because, in hurrying to develop them, the Trump administration seemed more concerned about the virus’ effect on the economy and Trump’s chances for re-election than making sure the vaccines were safe. That raised a question of whether the process for approving the vaccines could have been corrupted by political pressure.
In addition, it is not irrational for Black people to have hesitations about getting vaccinated, given a history of mistreatment by the medical and scientific communities. A prime example is the Tuskegee study, which began in 1932 and continued for 40 years. Black men were offered free medical care in exchange for their participation, but they were not told when they had syphilis or treated for it, even when penicillin became available in 1947. That injustice resulted not only in 128 deaths from syphilis or its complications, but transmission of the disease to at least 40 spouses and 19 unborn children.
But the vaccines—from Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson—have now been in use for several months. The side effects have been minimal, especially when compared to the danger of death and illness from Covid. The more serious side effects, like Johnson & Johnson’s rare blood clot occurrences, can be treated. Nevertheless, the various rational concerns expressed about taking the vaccines can and should be addressed.
But this must be distinguished from the irrational conspiracy theories that have mushroomed on social media. The scientific community’s response seems unable to keep pace with the proliferation of mistruths. Some of the social media spread is probably the product of panicked thinking, but some of it appears to be a calculated manipulation of thought to create that panic.
Extremist organizations are using the anti-vaccine movement
According to a New York Times article in March, the Stop the Steal insurrectionist movement appears to be shifting its target from the Big Lie of election theft to big vaccination lies in order to undermine the Biden Administration.
In April, Trump promoters Michael Flynn and Sidney Powell appeared along with anti-vax advocates at a conference dubbed “The Health and Freedom Conference 2021.” Flynn spoke for 30 minutes, claiming he was there “for the children,” and holding up a poster of a child with the words: “My mask caused a staph infection on my face 4 times; My Body, My choice; Unmask Iowa.”
The Times also reported that attacks on the safety and effectiveness of Covid vaccines are turning up in right-wing chat rooms, including those of the ultra-right Proud Boys, the Boogaloo movement, and various paramilitary organizations. They are spreading the idea that the push to get people vaccinated is a part of governmental control.
Dr. Simone Gold, an emergency room physician who has led in disseminating medical disinformation, advanced Trump’s promotion of hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid-19 despite the evidence that it was not effective and caused serious side effects. According to The Intercept, an investigative publication with a left-leaning perspective, on January 5, the day before the breach of the Capitol—in which Gold participated—she gave a speech, calling Covid vaccine “an experimental biological agent deceptively named a vaccine.” This, despite the fact Trump had taken credit for the vaccines’ development. What had changed? Trump was no longer in office.
Gold also has initiated a petition to stop people from being forced to get vaccinated. Since no one is being forced to get vaccinated, the petition is a straw man created to instill fear of a government oppression that does not exist. Yet, The Intercept reported, as of January, more than 94,000 people had signed it.
The psychology; why people fall into this cult-like thinking
It is not hard to understand why there are people—political leaders, clergy, and others—who use conspiracy theories to gain money and power. But why do their followers fall for it? And how is it that those anti-vaxxers who trust natural remedies over manufactured drugs and distrust corporations and Big Pharma—who largely are to the left ideologically—have bought into the far right’s broader governmental conspiracy theories?
In “How to Talk to Conspiracy Theorists,” published at Science. The Wire, Yoo Jung Kim, a recent graduate of the Stanford University School of Medicine and M.D. who worked in a safety net hospital in San Jose, California, has written, “conspiracy theorists…are afraid of their own powerlessness, and these theories offer them a semblance of control. Believing that COVID-19 was perpetuated by organizations with evil intentions…helps allay existential fears regarding the indifferent arbitrary universe we live in.” Kim further writes that “Conspiracy theories abound because they are easy to understand and fit neatly within their own twisted internal logic. The truth is often hopelessly complicated, but the best lies are simple and easy to believe.”
Rolling Stone’s comprehensive article strongly supported Kim’s view. The article suggested that our current plague of conspiracy theories is based in fear caused by the pandemic, along with a 20-year-long decline of American trust in institutions. Ethan Zuckerman, former director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, explained what pulls people into conspiracy theory organizations: “It’s usually people who lost trust in one institution and then found a coherent worldview that says, ‘Don’t just mistrust this one institution—mistrust all the institutions. All of them are in it together.’ ”
Eric Oliver, a political-science professor at the University of Chicago who has studied conspiracy theories since the 1990s, suggested that, in uncertain times, conspiracy belief helps people deal with general anxiety by allowing them to attach it to something concrete allegedly creating a chaotic world. He maintained that, to predict who will be drawn into conspiracy theories, look not at whether they are on the right or the left, ideologically, but whether they are more prone to intuitive thinking than to evidence-based thinking. Oliver submitted that evangelical or orthodox religious communities tend to rely more on intuitive thinking, but that New Age communities associated with the left ideologically do so as well.
What is the solution?
Public-health experts have not yet figured out how to ween people away from conspiracy theories. Giving people the facts, alone, doesn’t seem to break through because they refuse to believe the facts. And the still-large number of people buying into such theories (about 25 percent of Americans according to a Pew Research survey), endangers the ability to stop the pandemic. That in itself constitutes a public health crisis.
Yoo Jung Kim proposed “healthy doses of active listening, empathy, patience, and respect.” She wrote that, as a physician, “when I encounter a Covid-19 conspiracy theorist, I … empathize with them, acknowledging that COVID-19 is horrifying and that we all want our loved ones to be safe. I tell them that I don’t trust the conclusions of some conspiracy videos on the internet and I offer to refer them to more trustworthy sources of information. Even if they don’t change their mind, they know that I take their concerns seriously.”
Kim’s prescription shows great understanding and humanity, and might ultimately yield results one on one. The problem is, we need to reach and change Covid conspiracy thinking much faster than one by one if we are to ensure the public’s health on a nationwide scale. Calling Dr. Fauci!
Jessie Seigel is a fiction writer, an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. She has twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her work. But, Seigel also had a long career as a government attorney, in which she honed her analytic skills. Of this double career, Seigel would say, “I guess my right and left brains are well balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.