As everyone is anxiously awaiting a COVID-19 vaccine so life can go back to “normal,” scientists and researchers are racing to find a cure and are learning more and more each day about how the novel coronavirus moves through a body. In good news, they’re making progress: 70 vaccines are currently in development, and three are already in phase one of clinical evaluation. Not everyone thinks it’s a good thing, though.
Anti-vaxxers (or EX-vaxxers, as most self-identify) don’t, and have no intention of changing their tune anytime soon. Despite the undeniable, destructive magnitude of the pandemic and the overwhelming scientific evidence for the efficacy of vaccines for public health, COVID-19 has inspired many to double down on their before-time philosophies, solidifying staunch stances against “big pharma” and any kind of vaccine mandates.
Yet, some experts say that we might actually see these opinions challenged by the realities of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Coronavirus is changing some people’s minds because of the imagery,” Dr. Amy Baxter, MD, a clinical associate professor at Augusta University, Medical College of Georgia, tells SheKnows. “You can’t see people lined up in body bags from measles, but the immediacy of the coronavirus danger outweighs the perceived ‘I’m not so sure’ vaccine hesitancy.”
Plus, there’s the fact that these people genuinely do think they’re doing the right thing for their families — and once they realize they’re not, could concede. “As the death toll from coronavirus mounts, it’s likely some of these people will back down when the risks of these beliefs become more clear,” she adds. “No one wants to be proven publicly wrong, nor are most of those spreading misinformation malignant. They really believe they’re protecting people.”
Vaccination beliefs are shifting across the pond, too. According to a poll conducted by The Vaccine Confidence Project, a research group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, overall mistrust of vaccinations has eased in countries like France, Germany, Romania, Spain and the UK, with at least 85 percent of participants demonstrating “high confidence” in vaccines.
So are vocal anti-vaxxers really changing their minds over COVID-19?
Curious to see any change of heart for myself, I joined a prominent anti-vaxxer Facebook group primarily dedicated to barring mandatory vaccinations. I disclosed to members that I was writing a story and wanted to know their current thoughts, as some anti-vaxxers had reportedly changed their views amid the pandemic.
At least such was the case for Haley Searcy, 26, who CNN interviewed last week: “Since COVID-19, I’ve seen firsthand what these diseases can do when they’re not being fought with vaccines,” she told the outlet. “I wasn’t actively looking for vaccine information but the more I learned, the more I realized it would help and the easier it became to recognize the lack of science in anti-vax arguments.”
The group didn’t believe me, though.
“I highly doubt that any anti-vaxxer is suddenly changing their minds,” one member commented, who then requested stories of anti-vaxxers’ shifting perspectives. After I shared one, she called it “hearsay,” writing “that article is speculating. They have provided no evidence whatsoever.” Another commenter referred to the story, and “any ex-vaxxer changing their mind,” as “propaganda.”
The remainder of the thread was a resounding No: “…We will not surrender to this,” one wrote. “This whole episode shines a light on vaccines as a hoax,” another responded. “I would never change my mind. I have learned too much about vaccines to trust them, it’s sad that our medical system is so compromised by pig pharma,” they added. “All I see is death by injection coming.”
Others cited their faith for why they don’t want or need a vaccine, assured that “God will protect them.” For some, that protection hasn’t proven quite adequate however: The well-known Virginia preacher who believed “God can heal anything” has since died as a result of COVID-19. (Prior to falling ill, he doubted the severity of the virus, sharing to Facebook that it was just “mass hysteria” manipulated by the media.)
Some members, like Mary, were more agreeable, though. “I have had good things and bad things with [vaccines],” she said via Messenger. “I agree to a point. Something that has been tested for safety for years and that no dead fetuses are in it or any nasties.” (Editor’s note: the use of fetal tissue to create a vaccine can be a matter of bioethical debate for some — but is not a “nasty” nor is it unsafe.)
Similarly, Beatrice, who isn’t necessarily an anti-vaxxer but adamantly against the flu shot and the pharmaceutical industry overall, would get the COVID-19 vaccine, but only to safely spend time with elderly family members. She wouldn’t get it for herself, though: “I simply don’t trust the government.”
Distrusting “big government” seems to be a recurring theme among anti-vaxxers. Earlier this week, Facebook group Texans For Vaccine Choice drafted a letter to their governor demanding reassurance “that the state WILL NOT mandate a COVID-19 vaccine.” Similarly, multiple posts on Californians for Vaccine Choice call into question the state’s social distancing and shelter-in-place orders, accusing government officials of wrongdoing they refuse to admit. One video the group shared claims that the coronavirus is actually “caused by vaccines.”
It’s no surprise that anti-vaxxers and the right-wing have joined forces, protesting government mandated stay-at-home orders in tandem. Both groups share a mutual passion for opposing any form of government-imposed restrictions or what they see as censorship and/or surveillance. Co-opting slogans like “my body, my choice” that were originally conceptualized in support of abortion to instead be used in reference to mandated face coverings and a lack of access to things like chain restaurants or haircuts — they make the perfect (albeit dangerous) pair.
How does this thinking and the bunk science behind it spread?
Well, quite like a virus, it passes person-to-person — and with the help of a handful of influencers. Take Mark Elkin, self-identified author and “Earth change analyst” with 19,000 Facebook followers, who wrote: “Of course, they will enforce another vaccination. The infrastructure of the world is in serious trouble and with that comes medical martial law.” Or British rapper MIA who tweeted “if I have to choose the vaccine or chip, I’m gonna choose death” to her 650,000 followers on March 25.
Enter: Characters like Sara Walton Brady, the now notorious mother of four and anti-vaxxer “activist” who was arrested for trespassing on a playground in Idaho. While she was there with her children, they weren’t there to play: Brady was protesting the state’s stay-at-home order with conservative organization Idaho Freedom Foundation, of which she is a member. (She is also a “parental medical rights activist” at the Idaho Statehouse and founder of the “Idahoans for Vaccine Freedom” group on Facebook.) Brady was repeatedly asked to leave the park by law enforcement but refused, resulting in her being arrested in front of her children.
“I didn’t wake up today thinking, ‘I’m taking my kids to the park to get arrested’ — but when tyranny becomes law, rebellion becomes duty!” Brady shared in a video on Facebook. “We have a duty to stand up to tyranny, or we’re gonna lose our republic.”
Members of her “republic” feel similarly, it seems: Idaho State Representative Heather Scott recently called the governor “little Hitler,” comparing the state’s stay-at-home order to concentration camps during the Holocaust. “That’s no different than Nazi Germany,” she said in a podcast interview. “Where you had government telling people, ‘You are an essential worker or a nonessential worker,’ and the nonessential workers got put on a train.”
Meanwhile, Blaine County, Idaho had one of the highest per capita case and mortality rates from COVID-19 in the U.S. just a few weeks ago.
But is there still a chance to see people’s views evolve?
Still: Some experts remain optimistic about people becoming more informed about vaccines (and be more careful about the health advice they follow).
Heidi Larson, Director of the Vaccine Confidence Project, told CNN that as coronavirus death tolls rose and general awareness of its severity increased, people were more amenable to accepting a vaccine. “I think it definitely is provoking people to rethink a lot of things,” Larson explained, but added that some were “going to the opposite side,” and skeptical of potential vaccine(s) — as we’ve seen.
“This is an important time to reflect on the value of vaccines,” she continued. “If we had had a vaccine for this, we wouldn’t be locked up in a room, the economies wouldn’t be crumbling, we would have been a whole different world. The question I would ask is, do we have to wait for something to be this bad?”
Larson concluded that when vaccines “become widespread,” seemingly eliminating any threat, people tend to grow doubtful, and that any vaccine’s potential success “totally depends on public cooperation.”
Hopefully we can achieve that soon. In the meantime, please, stay indoors. And don’t drink any Lysol or inject any bleach.
*Some names have been changed.
To calm your anxiety and feel prepared for any emergency, check out our must-haves for your quarantine first-aid kit: