My Turn: Anti-vax movement goes far deeper than mere skepticism

For the Monitor
Published: 10/9/2021 5:00:17 PM

Fall is officially here. In October, as the leaves start to fall and our gardens give up their last, the very air has a more somber feel.

Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me that the anti-vaccine movement has also taken a sinister turn. It isn’t surprising, but it is deeply troubling. The vehemence of the resistance goes beyond the vaccine hesitancy or the simple lack of access to information which prevailed earlier in the pandemic.

As companies, school systems and municipalities crack down, offering carrots or sticks or mandates to their employees, students or citizens, a fiercely vocal minority cries foul. School boards are divided, as the public disrupts meetings, and even some elected officials claim that mask mandates constitute child abuse, and vaccines are dangerous. Hospitals and nursing homes, already beleaguered by the ravages of COVID, are haunted by the prospect that by mandating vaccines they may lose workers they desperately need.

Just recently, right here in New Hampshire, a group of anti-vaccine protesters broke up a meeting of the Executive Council slated to discuss federal aid for our state’s efforts to combat the pandemic. They were angry and threatening in their opposition to these efforts. The malice of their threat, “We know where you live!” still hangs in the air.

How could it come to this? (Spoiler alert: I’m not sure anybody actually has the full answer to that, and I’m sure my response is only partially complete!) There are a few ideas floating out there, though, which are worth looking at. The bottom line is that we need to figure this out before this movement becomes any more vicious.

I have learned that little of this skepticism or opposition to public health measures is actually new. Witches, the would-be healers of medieval, and then colonial times, with their secret concoctions, were persecuted. The superstitious public sought to blame them for the plague and a host of other ills. Early proponents of smallpox inoculation in colonial America met with resistance as they tried to enforce widespread prevention of this horrible disease. In the early twentieth century there were still pockets of resistance to smallpox vaccines. There has been a cadre of anti-vaxers to childhood immunizations for years clinging to their debunked theories.

In times when access to information was limited, it is understandable that some people would fall back on fear or superstition, or make decisions based on principles like personal freedom. That seemed wise when the freedom of the individual didn’t collide with the freedom of others, as it does now. Likewise, when pharmaceutical manufacturing wasn’t tightly regulated, a certain skepticism that companies were out to make money at their expense, or that the treatment was worse than the cure, made sense.

But the sheer obstinacy of those on board with the anti-vaccine movement today, when the science is clear, and the evidence of efficacy and safety of the vaccines is overwhelming, is astonishing.

What is emerging from the shadows is that our disagreements on these issues are along a number of fault lines. Income and education play a small role, at least, but religious beliefs and geography play more. Political affiliation may play the biggest role of all, to a degree not seen in earlier debates about public health measures.

Personally, I’m coming to the conclusion that the real cauldron of this witches’ brew will turn out to be the internet. For all the importance on our lives the internet has, its boiling brew of devious search algorithms, echo chambers, deep fakes, and platforms ripe for sowers of disinformation has torn us apart along the fault lines that have been forming for the past few years. The political divide has become the deepest of all, even in the face of the facts about prevention of the spread of this virus, plain as they seem to me.

The solution is simple but incredibly hard. We need to keep reaching out across this divide. We need to fall back on personal connection, which we seem to have lost. If we don’t, the pandemic will have its own way of doing this for us.

(Millie LaFontaine of Concord is a retired neurologist.)


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