Anti-Vaxxers and the Unvaccinated: False Consciousness in a Time of Pandemic

In early August 2021, two rightwing politicians came out against Covid-19 vaccinations.  On Fox News, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) claimed that masks were not effective in preventing the spread of Covid.  “The more [mask] mandates we got, the more disease we got,” he insisted. “Now, I don’t think the mark caused the disease, but I don’t think the mask help any.”

On Twitter, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) claimed that neither vaccines nor masks reduce Covid transmission.  On her Facebook page, she insisted, “You’re going to be arrested if you don’t wear a mask that, guess what, doesn’t work.”  Adding, “It’s likely a little piece of cloth covering your face, or a napkin, like a paper mask – those don’t stop Covid from spreading, either.”

In response, YouTube and Twitter suspended both pols and YouTube removed Paul’s video for promoting disinformation about the pandemic.  And Facebook has done nothing.

Nearly 350 million doses of Covid vaccines have been given in the U.S., nevertheless an uptickin pandemic-related deaths is now sweeping the country due to the Covid Delta variant.  This is especially impacting more conservative states like Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri and Florida.  The uptick in deaths is principally due to those who refuse to be vaccinated, those dubbed “anti-vaxxers.”  Their refusal is a testament to the deepening political crisis gripping the nation.  

In July, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical advisor to Pres. Joe Biden, noted,

“If you look at the number of deaths [due to Covid-19], about 99.2 percent of them are unvaccinated. About 0.8 percent are vaccinated. … it’s really sad and tragic that most all of these are avoidable and preventable.”

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reiterated Fauci’s warning, noting that more than 97% of people getting hospitalized with Covid-19 now are unvaccinated.  She said, “This is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

CNN reported on Johns Hopkins University study shows that “the average number of new Covid-19 cases each day the past week was 32,278. That’s a 66% jump from the average daily rate the previous week, and 145% higher than the rate from two weeks ago.”  It also points out, “an average of 258 Americans died from Covid-19 each day this past week — up 13% from the rate of daily deaths the previous week.”

Sadly, the Covid infection and death rates keep climbing.

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There is an critical difference between the “unvaccinated” and “anti-vaxxers.”

The Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) reports that “the unvaccinated group are younger, more likely to identify as Republicans or be Republican-leaning, and more likely to have lower levels of education and lower incomes than the vaccinated population.”  The anti-vaxxers have a lower-level of education; vaccinated Americans are twice as likely as unvaccinated to have a college degree or higher (38% vs. 19%).

KFF notes that “the unvaccinated group also tends to include disproportionate shares of adults without health insurance coverage as well as those with lower levels of income.”  It points out that “those under the age of 65 without insurance make up about one quarter of the unvaccinated population, and 42% of all unvaccinated adults report earning less than $40K a year.”

Perhaps most revealing, the KFF study differentiates between those it identifies as “wait and see” and the “definitely not” with regard to getting vaccinated.  It reports that “half of those in the ‘wait and see’ group are people of color.” However, “the most vaccine resistant group, those who say they will ‘definitely not’ get a COVID-19 vaccine is overwhelmingly made up of White adults (70% of the group compared to 49% of the “wait and see” group).”

The current upswing in Covid-related hospitalizations and deaths in Texas illuminates the crisis many Republican states are confronting.  As of August 6th, the state had a death rate per 100,000 at 0.17 and a daily average death rate of 49.6 people.  In comparison, Vermont had a death rate of 0.02 per 100,000 and an daily average deaths 0.01 people.

The Texas Tribune reports that the “main groups within Texas’ unvaccinated population: white conservatives in rural areas, and Hispanic and Black people in big cities.”  It notes that “while 15 million Texans who have received at least one shot as of Aug. 1, that leaves 9 million eligible Texans who have not gotten their vaccine yet.”

The Tribune profiles an anti-vaxxer, Brad Offutt, a 53-year-old “pain therapist from Marble Falls, a town of about 6,000 people in Burnet County. It notes that Marble Falls is “a conservative stronghold; 76% of its voters cast their ballots for Trump in 2020.”  Offutt says that will only get vaccinated with the vaccines get full approval — rather than the current emergency authorization. He resists vaccination because, as he says, the chances of for getting infected are slim because he “doesn’t feel threatened by COVID personally” and so is willing to “take the risk of getting COVID.”

The Tribune points out that in “the state’s biggest cities, the story is different. Vaccination rates are higher in the metropolitan areas, but the cities’ poorer neighborhoods and the neighborhoods with more people of color tend to have much lower vaccination rates. Overall, Black and Hispanic Texans hold the lowest vaccination rates among racial groups statewide, at 28% and 35% respectively.”

Among anti-vaxxers, Offutt’s rationale is but one of numerous reasons for not getting vaccinated.  Others range from the cautionary to the absurd.  For example, anti-vaxxers claim that people shouldn’t use the mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) because they have not received FDA formal approval, were developed from aborted fetal cells or that the virus mutates so fast that a vaccine will never work.  Another, promoted by “feminist” Naomi Wolf, that “hundreds of women … say they are having bleeding/clotting after vaccination or that they bleed oddly being AROUND vaccinated women.”  Some insist that vaccination caused women to become infertile, cause infertility and autism; some claim the vaccine “resulted in decreased testicular size, drop of testosterone levels, and marked atrophy of the prostate.”

Naturalnews, a pseudoscience website, reported that Pres.-elect Biden’s Covid-19 task force proposed that government food stamps will be denied to those who refuse vaccines or (in Colorado) parents will be forced to take a government-run re-education program if they refuse to give their children the Covid vaccine. Others claim that the pharmaceutical industry is corrupt or that Dr. Fauci will personally profit. Among the most absurd is the claim that vaccination will insert microchip surveillance technology created by Bill Gates-funded research.

Zignal Labs, which tracks social media, finds that vaccine misinformation jumped significantly between July and June, 2021.  It identified claims that vaccines don’t work (up 437 percent), that they contain microchips (up 156 percent), that people should rely on “natural immunity” instead of getting vaccination (up 111 percent) and that vaccines cause miscarriage (up to 75 percent).

However, the deepest rationale appears to be the good-old American claim of “freedom.”  Anita Garcia, of Massachusetts, protested the state’s flu vaccine mandate.  She is a member of an 866-member Facebook group called “Massachusetts for Medical Freedom” that opposes consider government overreach.  “All you can do is try to fight for your freedom,” Garcia said. “We are for medical freedom, bodily autonomy. Our bodies are ours, not for someone else to govern.”

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Anti-vaxxers are not new to the U.S.  Fear of vaccines emerged in the 18th century, with religious leaders often referred to vaccines as “the devil’s work” and actively spoke against them.

René Najera, an epidemiologist and editor of The History of Vaccines, reports that when the smallpox vaccine was introduced in the late 18th century, misinformation abounded. “It’s going to turn you into a cow because they’re taking the cow puss and giving that to you,” Najera notes. “It’s going to make you have stillbirths because look at how many cows have stillbirths after getting cowpox, etc.”

In 1905, the Supreme Court ruled, in Jacobson v Massachusetts, that the Boston Board of Public Health had the authority to issue vaccine mandates, thus forcing Henning Jacobson to get vaccinated and to pay a fine that was imposed on him for refusing to be vaccinated against smallpox.

Researchers Olivia Benecke and Sarah Elizabeth DeYoung note, “A foreshadowing of the current Covid anti-vaxx movement was evident in reactions to the 2019 measles outbreaks that reached emergency levels.”  They add:

… Since 2014, public health officials have observed an increase in vaccine opposition throughout the United States, primarily concentrated in major metropolitan areas. … Recent resurgences of measles, mumps, and pertussis and increased mortality from vaccine-preventable diseases prompt an in-depth exploration of the social and behavioral factors that influence the “anti-vaxx” movement.

They note that the 2019 anti-vaxx movement was a promoted through spread of misinformation on social media and anti-vaccine website discussion boards such as Age of Autism, Say No to Vaccines and Naturalnews.  They point out that “#VaccinateUS, a Twitter hashtag linked directly to Russian troll accounts connected to the Internet Research Agency — a company backed by the Russian government that specializes in online influence projects.”  They also note, “celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy, Alicia Silverstone, Rob Schneider, and Robert De Niro used fear-based messaging to influence parents to avoid vaccination, particularly in claiming a false link between vaccinations and autism.”

Now, a couple of years later, something very similar in playing out with regard to Covid-19. Most significant, a number of Republican governors have come out in support of anti-vaxxers, opposing wearing masks, blocking mandating vaccinations for public employees and promoting efforts to “open” businesses.  Among them are Ron DeSantis (Florida), Greg Abbott (Texas), Pete Ricketts (Nebraska), Kim Reynolds (Iowa), Doug Ducey (Arizona) and Kristi Noem (South Dakota).  They all seem to be positioning themselves as the next-Trump Republican for the 2024 presidential run.

State governments are backing the anti-vaxxers in a number of critical ways,  including:

+ Blocking mask mandates – South Carolina.
+ Blocking vaccination requirements – Arizona, Oklahoma, Utah, Wyoming.
+ Blocking proof of vaccination – Arkansas.
+ Vaccines passport — New Yorkbecame the first state to a Covid-19 vaccine passport, dubbed Excelsior Pass; it a digital platform is free and voluntary.

Blocking vaccine passports or other indicator – Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota (limited ban), Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Washington.

However, in the recent spike in Covid hospitalizations and deaths due to the Delta variant, a number of Republican governors changed their tune per vaccination.  Alabama’s Kay Ivey says surge in new infections is due to a reluctance among many in state to get inoculated.  Utah’s Spencer Cox complained, “We have these – these talking heads who have gotten the vaccine and are telling other people not to get the vaccine.” He added, “That kind of stuff is just, it’s ridiculous. It’s dangerous, it’s damaging, and it’s killing people. I mean, it’s literally killing their supporters. And that makes no sense to me.”

Perhaps indicating a sea-change in Republicans attitudes toward the Covid threat, a growing number of Congresspersons are getting vaccinated.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a polio survivor, was vaccinated and Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), the House Republican whip, just got vaccinated.  CNN reports “nearly half of House Republicans still won’t say publicly​whether they are vaccinated against Covid-19, even as new cases rise nationwide.” Adding, “some of the 97 Republicans who aren’t sharing their vaccination status told CNN they don’t have a responsibility to model behavior to their constituents.”

Still others social forces fuel the anti-vaxxer campaign, notably conservative religious groups.  Heidi Campbell, a professor at Texas A&M, found that “a lot of evangelicals associate themselves with Republicanism and the idea of small government, and they saw COVID-19 health guidelines as an issue of their freedom of expression and freedom of religion.”  She adds, “So the issue with COVID-19 is that it’s gotten politicized as ‘government control over my life’ and an infringement on individual choice and rights, not as a health issue in many respects.”

Anti-vaxxer misinformation is promoted through still other public sources.  Innocent confusion is spread through the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, a federal database that includes hundreds of thousands of reports of health events that, as NPR notes, “many of the reported events are coincidental — things that happen by chance, not caused by the shot. But when millions of people are vaccinated within a short period, the total number of these reported events can look big.”  Drawing on VAERS reports, Thomas Renz claimed that 45,000 people had died due to being vaccinated.

The Center for Countering Digital Hate finds in a revealing report, “The Disinformation Dozen,” that “” anti-vaccine activists on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter reach more than 59 million followers, making these the largest and most important social media platforms for anti-vaxxers.”  Going further, it identifies “twelve anti-vaxxers who play leading roles in spreading digital misinformation about Covid vaccines. They were selected because they have large numbers of followers, produce high volumes of anti-vaccine content or have seen rapid growth of their social media accounts in the last two months.”  Media Matters of America found that over 200 Facebook groups (with around 400,000 members) promoted anti-vaxxer discussions.

Anti-vaxxer misinformation is also promoted through online social networks, notably Facebook.  A report in The Washington Post found that “an overlap between users expressing skepticism about vaccines and accounts affiliated with the QAnon conspiracy theory.”  While Facebook said it would ban such group, The Post adds, “users, however, continuously form new QAnon groups, accounts and pages using adversarial tactics that attempt to hide their affiliation with the conspiracy theory ….”

Pres. Biden originally accused Facebook of “killing people” but quickly backoff, insisting, “Facebook isn’t killing people — these 12 people are out there giving misinformation. Anyone listening to it is getting hurt by it. It’s killing people. It’s bad information.”  The New York Times detailed the long-fought battle between the White House and Facebook over its ongoing publication of misinformation.  Recent meetings between representatives of the two organizations end “without any concrete solutions.”

And then there is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., head of Children’s Health Defense.

A progressive environmentalist, he long opposed childhood vaccines, promoting the disproven claim that link vaccines with autism. His strong stand as an anti-vaxxer led to him being blocked from Instagram

Three of his close relatives wrote a passionate open-letter for Politico that states, in part:

We love Bobby. He is one of the great champions of the environment. His work to clean up the Hudson River and his tireless advocacy against multinational organizations who have polluted our waterways and endangered families has positively affected the lives of countless Americans. We stand behind him in his ongoing fight to protect our environment. However, on vaccines he is wrong.

However, there are more sinister sources influencing the anti-vaxxer movement.  The New York Times identifies “various Russian groups” promoting false stories and cartoons about Covid vaccines released through sites and message boards like Patroits.win, Gab and Parler as well as the RT network.

A second front in the effort to influence the anti-vaxxer movement come from domestic right-wing groups.  Eric Ward, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, warns of “alt-right attempt to politicize the … anti-vaxxer movement,” with the pandemic providing “fertile ground for that organizing because folks are fearful right now.”  Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, warns that white nationalism are targeting anti-vaccine activists who appear to be adopting the language and beliefs of militia causes, including mothers concerned about their children’s health.  He notes the crossover between chapters of the Freedom Angels and People’s Rights, founded by antigovernment activist Ammon Bundy, suggested the need for violent noncompliance with Covid health efforts.

In his now-classic study, One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse noted:

To the degree to which they correspond to the given reality, thought and behavior express a false consciousness, responding to and contributing to the preservation of a false order of facts. And this false consciousness has become embodied in the prevailing technical apparatus which in turn reproduces it.

Sadly, the ”false consciousness” embedded in the anti-vaxxer ideology promotes a “false order of facts” that leads to ever-more deaths from Covid.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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