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Coronavirus hasn’t killed the anti-vax movement

X-Ray technician Kirk Lindeman gathers with others near Huntington Beach Pier to protest Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order to temporarily close state and local beaches in Orange County, during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Huntington Beach, California, U.S.
Reuters/ Kyle Grillot
Anti-vaxxers championed California protests against the lockdown on Friday
By Olivia Goldhill
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Around the world, millions of people are hoping for a vaccine to protect against Covid-19. Plenty of anti-vaxxers, though, are holding fast to their inoculation suspicions. 

On May 1, the Freedom Angels Foundation, a group that opposes mandatory vaccines, led a protest of hundreds of people in Sacramento, California, demanding the end to the state’s lockdown restrictions. This group represents a branch of anti-vaccination protestors who emphasize individual autonomy and strongly resist government oversight. They use the same arguments rejecting mandatory vaccines to push back against the ongoing mandatory lockdowns.

“One of the things that we’re finding is that the rhetoric is pretty similar between the anti-vaxxers and those demanding to reopen,” Rupali Limaye, who studies vaccine hesitancy at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told the New York Times. “What we hear a lot of is ‘individual self management’—this idea that they should be in control of making decisions, that they can decide what science is correct and incorrect, and that they know what’s best for their child.”

Some anti-vaxxers have turned coronavirus into a tool to push conspiracy theories. “Make no mistake, the purpose of the coronavirus is to help usher in vaccine mandates,” anti-vaxxer Larry Cook, who has 50,000 YouTube subscribers, wrote on Facebook according to CBS. “Be woke. Know the Plan. Prepare. Resist.” Meanwhile, prominent anti-vaxxer Del Bigtree put forward arguments that the virus was created in a lab to profit the pharmaceutical industry on his radio show, The HighWire. 

Celebrities amplify this cause. The world number one men’s tennis player, Novak Djokovic, said, “Personally I am opposed to vaccination and I wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to be able to travel.” And Robert Kennedy Jr tweeted that a vaccine to prevent coronavirus would bring “unique and frightening dangers.”

A Covid-19 vaccine is essential to create “herd immunity,” which would stop the spread of the virus and allow societies to fully re-open. Yet some in anti-vaccine communities are concerned the rush to create a Covid-19 vaccine could mean that one is released without proper safety checks, according to a Reuters analysis

Other anti-vaxxers, however, are reconsidering their stance on vaccines in the face of this global pandemic. One longtime anti-vaxxer in the US told Reuters she would consider taking a Covid-19 vaccine, and expressed skepticism at the conspiracy theories surrounding the disease. “We’re all being affected by this virus, schools closing, young people in hospital, and they still say it’s a hoax,” she said.

A survey of 2,200 people in the United States taken in March found that 76% would be willing to get a Covid-19 vaccine but, within that group, only 30% said they’d want to be one of the first vaccinated. Side effects to vaccines are extremely rare, and most are easily treated. Yet those with a deep-seated resistance to vaccines are unlikely to change because of coronavirus, Heidi Larson, director of the London-based Vaccine Confidence Project (VCP), told the Guardian: “The extremists, the belief-driven groups who reject vaccination on principle, whose aim is to disrupt and polarise, they’re not changing, in fact they’re capitalising.” 

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