As the COVID -19 pandemic continues to rage worldwide, vaccines including Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine are the only options for the world to return to “normal,” or whatever the new normal will be. While many countries have already begun administering vaccines to frontline workers and elderly citizens, the growing anti-vaxx movement has the potential to impede the effectiveness of the vaccine roll-out and delay herd immunity.
Herd immunity is best achieved once 60 to 70 percent of the global population has been vaccinated, which comes to 197 million to 230 million citizens in the United States alone and 4.7 billion to 5.5 billion globally. However, these efforts are being slowed, or possibly halted, by the anti-vaxx movement which is fueled by alt-right politicians and ultra conservative groups notably in the United States, Europe, and Latin America.
According to an interview in The New Yorker with Dr. Peter Hotez, a professor of pediatrics and molecular virology at Baylor College of Medicine and the co-director of the Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development, the anti-vaxx movement originally gained traction following a paper by Andrew Wakefield that was published in The Lancet. Hotez stated in the interview that Wakefield “falsely claim[ed] that the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine had the ability to cause autism.” Although the paper was debunked by a Times of London journalist, the anti-vaxx movement began to flourish in the UK, and subsequently in the US where it became linked to the political right’s “health freedom, medical freedom” banner around 2014. However, the movement didn’t fully take off until the creation of Robert F. Kennedy’s anti-vaccine group called Children’s Health Defense.
The banner of the health freedom movement began primarily focused on vaccines, which brought in right-wing idols including Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones, who promoted these ideals on their platforms. In 2020, the movement joined the resistance against masks and social distancing, evolving into an anti-science movement.
Robert F. Kennedy, the environmental lawyer turned anti-vaxx activist, has since become one of the biggest names in the global anti-vaxx movement. He spoke at an online session of the Polish Parliamentary Group for the Safety of Vaccinations for Children and Adults in December of 2020. In the session, he contributed to the hysteria when he stated, “In the US, they direct all cows down a shoot, which gets narrower and narrower, until they end up in the slaughterhouse. That’s what they’re doing to us with the [COVID-19] vaccine. But we cannot afford to be cattle.”
As Kennedy is the nephew of the former president John F. Kennedy, the session was incredibly popular, proving that there are strong bonds between foreign and domestic anti-vaxxers that are aiding in exacerbating the anti-vaxx sentiment in Poland. Although much of the disinformation is Russia-produced, many COVID skeptics across the US, Europe, Latin America and other nations are taking advantage of the “infodemic” in Poland to spread their own ultra conservative, anti-EU, anti-democratic, or populist agendas.
The anti-vaxx movement extends beyond misinformation because the term does not accurately convey that false information is being deliberately spread. Some groups are intentionally profiting from it through the selling of “detoxes” or vitamins that they claim will prevent Covid-19 infection. Propaganda is a significant challenge to combatting the pandemic, and as much of this is spread over social media, many view this as a social media problem. Noting this, social media platforms have taken to countering misinformation that is being posted while Covid-19 is spread world wide. However, this has had some complications, as removed propaganda is being considered “forbidden information.” Although diminishing anti-vaxx sentiment and misinformation at its source can be helpful in minimizing its reach, it doesn’t solve the underlying issue: the lack of trust in governmental institutions.
All vaccines and medicines carry some risks, and there is no doubt that a small percent of the population will suffer some type of reaction to the inoculation. Those who are loyal to the anti-vaxx movement will amplify these stories over social media, creating a narrative of danger and fear. Anti-vaxx misinformation must be countered by accurate information that leads to more confidence in a vaccine. Governments should work to understand the fear and respond with empathy in areas where trust in the government is low when it comes to matters of health.
This is especially the case in many Black communities in the United States that have previously been the subject of unethical scientific experimentation and various medical abuses. According to the NC Policy Watch, the most infamous case of these abuses was the Tuskegee Experiment from 1932 until 1972. The NCPW states that “The U.S. Public Health Service provided free health care to 600 Black men, 399 with syphilis, and told them they were being treated for “bad blood.” The true purpose was to record how syphilis progressed. The researchers withheld treatment, and men in the study died of syphilis or suffered other effects of late-stage infection.” This is just one of many examples where Black communities in the US were abused by the healthcare system. Both national and state polls show that these communities are reluctant to take the vaccine.
To abate this fear, governments and health officials must be transparent by discussing possible side effects and the effectiveness of the vaccine. Avoiding confusion is essential in a time of crisis, and establishing confidence in vaccines has a real world impact, now more than ever. We all have the power to amplify the content we see when it comes to vaccines, and many do not understand the responsibility we have. Be vigilant; it’s essential now.