Sep 17, 2021

Jonathan Kay: Anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories aren't just killing people. They're tearing society apart

An anti-vaccine sign is displayed at a Toronto rally protesting the Ontario government’s plan to introduce a COVID-19 vaccine passport, in front of Toronto City Hall on Sept. 1, 2021. PHOTO BY PETER J. THOMPSON/NATIONAL POST
It’s ironic that the same miracle drugs that could allow us to defeat a plague have become the seed pathogen for a conspiracist outbreak

Jonathan Kay
September 15, 2021

Over the summer, I visited places that lie on the two extreme ends of the COVID-19 vaccine-uptake spectrum.

In July, I found myself in Tennessee, where only 43 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated — just a single percentage point higher than the most vaccine-avoidant state in the union (North Dakota). Then, upon returning to Canada, I drove 17 hours from my home in Toronto to Prince Edward Island, a place where more than 80 per cent of residents are fully vaccinated. The data I’ve seen suggest that P.E.I. boasts the highest vaccination rate for any jurisdiction anywhere in North America.

In both places, I asked local residents to explain their outlier status. Among Tennesseans, the answers were predictable: Vaccine skepticism in the United States tracks conservative attitudes, and Tennessee is one of the most right-wing states in the union. This means that it’s a target-rich environment for fringe theories that cast big pharma, government officials and the mainstream media as malevolent conspirators seeking to oppress, harm, or even kill ordinary citizens with poisonous injections.

The situation in P.E.I. is a little harder to explain. The province is mostly rural, and a significant part of the population lives in small communities centred on such traditional industries as potato farming and fishing. And while P.E.I.’s island geography does make it easier to control access in and out (I had to show proof of vaccination on the island side of the Confederation Bridge), the politics of the place aren’t unusually progressive. And so it isn’t immediately clear to a visitor how this tiny island became a continent-wide vaccination leader. By way of comparison, Hawaii, America’s only island state, has a fully vaccinated rate of only 55 per cent.

The situation in P.E.I. is a little harder to explain

“This is a place where people tend to do what their neighbours do,” explained a local landscaper I spoke with after he’d recruited me to play Spikeball on Brackley Beach. “If everyone around you gets the shot, and you’re the only one at the diner or schoolyard or whatever who doesn’t, people look at you like, ‘Why not?’ ”

One of his beach buddies added that because P.E.I. is such a small place, many adult Islanders still live within easy driving distance of parents and grandparents, and so family visits tend to be frequent. “If you’re bringing the kids to see granddad on the farm every Sunday, it doesn’t matter if you want the vaccine for yourself. You do it for granddad. Or for your neighbour’s granddad. It’s kind of like a group decision, and you respect that.”

This kind of explanation, of which I heard several variations, made more sense to me once I learned about the history of P.E.I. The island is a conservative place, but in the traditional European sense of that word. For instance, it maintained its ban on alcohol until 1948, decades after prohibition was lifted in other parts of North America. (From the Italianate belvedere of his palace on Great George Street in Charlottetown, the local Catholic bishop would personally scan the port’s waters, looking for signs of bootleggers and rumrunners.) Times have changed, of course. But deference to authority and group consensus still seem to run fairly strong.

And so the question arises: What happens when someone decides to buck that consensus?

The full-time population of P.E.I. is only about 156,000. Yet it boasts two of the country’s best disc-golf courses. And it was on one of these, in the town of Kinkora (population 336), that I fell in for a few hours with a lifelong Islander from the Summerside area who told me in detail about how this kind of disagreement had blown up relations between the two wings of his family.

After skipping their big reunion in 2020, his family members had planned to have a big blowout in 2021, with invitations specifying that everyone should make sure to get double-vaccinated before attending. But things went off the rails when one of the patriarchs hit reply-all, sending everyone a long manifesto explaining that the COVID-19 threat is overblown and the vaccines will hurt you. Harsh words then flew, opening up a massive family rift.

The stakes were high because this wasn’t just the usual potluck bickering about who’s been promoted to coleslaw and who’s been downgraded to Jell-O. It was a group decision regarding compliance with a potentially life-or-death public-health measure.

Around this time of year, conspiracy theories tend to be on my mind — but they’re usually the type centred around the World Trade Center. Having written a book about 9/11 “Truthers” a decade ago, I get interviewed by other journalists about why, even all these years later, smart people continue to believe strange things about the origins of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

During my research, one thing that attracted my interest was the social dynamics that governed relationships among conspiracy theorists and their non-conspiracist companions. As I wrote in the book, Truther marriages tend to fall into one of two categories. Either the conspiracist belief system is something *shared* by husband and wife. Or, if only one of them believes in the conspiracy theory, there’s usually an understanding that, to protect the relationship, the believer avoids talking about the issue with the non-believing spouse. (I’m guessing that marriages between religious and non-religious partners follow a similar pattern.)

That kind of polite social arrangement is possible with 9/11 conspiracy theories because, as apocalyptic as those theories may be, the truth or falsity of the belief system doesn’t really have any effect on day-to-day life. Even if you think George W. Bush and Dick Cheney conspired to bring down the World Trade Center with explosives as a pretext to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, that doesn’t prevent you from working, attending school, going to church, playing sports, or hosting barbecues with people who understand that the 9/11 attacks were, in fact, the work of al-Qaida.

But by its nature, anti-vaxxer propaganda is a fundamentally different, and much more socially toxic, form of conspiracist ideology — because the actual *substance* of the underlying misinformation implicates itself directly in the way we physically interact with each other.

Anti-vaxxer propaganda is … much more socially toxic

The old dinner-party rule that allows people to get by amicably so long as they avoid talking about “religion and politics” doesn’t apply, because many of us won’t feel comfortable breaking bread with an unvaccinated conspiracy theorist in the first place. The same is true for workplaces. Most of us have no problem working cheek-by-jowl with people of different faiths or political creeds. But if your colleague’s conspiracy theories keep him from getting vaccinated, that’s a different story: He’s subjecting you to unnecessary medical risk every time he punches the clock.

While most classic Truther-style conspiracist movements are historically based ideologies that explain past evil and suffering, vaccine conspiracism is *forward* looking and explicitly political, because its adherents’ goal is to discourage or even disrupt ongoing medical interventions that address a current public-health crisis. And the effects are deadly. The state of Tennessee has been averaging about 50 daily COVID-19 deaths this month, more than double the total for all of Canada. In the Nashville area alone, where I was visiting, there were 17 deaths over a five-day period last week — 16 of them among unvaccinated individuals. This city of just 690,000 people has already lost more than 1,000 lives to COVID-19. Hawaii has lost more than 600 lives. In Prince Edward Island, the death toll has been zero.

The problem of declining social trust — one of the great engines of conspiracy theories — has been with us since the early Cold War period. But I’m not sure there’s been a better example (at least in my own lifetime) of how this kind of distrust can lead directly to widespread tragedy and social division. And that division will continue to grow because, again, this isn’t one of those issues that friends can politely ignore when they make small talk. The question of vaccination now hovers over literally every workplace, civic organization, social event and family gathering. And since it now looks like even vaccinated individuals will require booster shots, it won’t fully go away even when the numbers recede.

It’s darkly ironic that the same miracle drugs that could allow us to defeat a once-in-a-century plague have themselves become the seed pathogen for a conspiracist outbreak that’s not only undermining public-health policy, but even causing mobs of anti-vaxxers to assail politicians in public with epithets and gravel.

In some ways, we’ve become something like a giant family that can’t even agree on how to hold a summer reunion. To adapt the idiom of 9/11 Truthers: The virus itself isn’t destroying our political order. It’s an act of internal demolition.

National Post

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