What the end of COVID health emergencies means for anti-vaxxers: Meltdown

It’s one thing to know intellectually that anti-vaccine fanatics are people completely detached from reality, but it’s another to be bombarded with their delusions in a very personal way.

“Fortunately” for me, such an opportunity was presented to me recently – where else? – on Twitter. For no apparent reason, a few weeks ago my replies started to fill with “this you?” style taunts. Traditionally, “this you?” receipts are about unearthing a previous public statement that the target is expected to be ashamed of. For example, if a right-winger falls violently ill with COVID-19, they risk having pro-vaccine people hit them with “is this you?” memories of the times they dismissed the disease as a hoax.

But what these people kept tweeting at me, clearly believing I’d be embarrassed, wasn’t embarrassing at all: An opinion column I wrote in August 2021 headlined, “It’s okay to blame the unvaccinated – they’re robbing the rest of us of our freedoms.” None of my harassers could explain why exactly I should feel bad about this. A few medical details have been superseded, but overall it remains a strong argument. However, it didn’t take long to determine that the people tweeting vitriol at me were anti-vaxxers. Even worse, they are people who have become so caught up in their bubble of disinformation that they have convinced themselves that it goes without saying that being pro-vaccine in 2021 would leave someone in 2023 with a lot of regret.

I had a front row seat to the ongoing collapse of a group of people who have built their entire identities around the pandemic.

It’s never pleasure being chased on Twitter, but this was one of the more intriguing versions of the experience.

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There was a fascinating pathos to these people – in their belief that their anti-vaccine views are justified – but also in their desperation. They craved relevance so much that they resorted to being the victim of a two-year-old headline. (Analytical data showed that few bothered to actually read the essay.) During the few days I was bombarded with tweets, I had a front row seat to the escalating collapse of a group of people who had wrapped their entire identities around the pandemic had built up. Without the culture war surrounding COVID-19 to give meaning to their lives, they lose their already shaky grip on reality.

It does help to explain why Republican politicians are still obsessed with COVID-19.

In their pre-primary slapfight, Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have become consumed with an argument over who downplayed the virus more, with DeSantis going so far as to support a bogus “investigation” on the vaccines. Meanwhile, newly authorized speaker Kevin McCarthy says House Republicans are planning more mock “investigations” into the pandemic response, led by prominent conspiracy theorists like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who regularly spreads anti-vaccine lies.

Fighting the COVID-19 culture wars again seems like a strange choice politically, as this is all yesterday’s news for most of the country. Of course, there is a debate about whether it is still a “pandemic” in a scientific sense, but in a socio-cultural sense, the emergency is over. Mask mandates and social distancing are gone and unlikely to return, and fears of another winter attack have largely gone unmanifested. The White House is winding down from the pandemic emergency declaration. For most people, life is relatively normal again. In politics, it is usually considered unwise to waste energy on past battles.

However, it all makes sense when you realize that much of the GOP base — the kind of people who donate to campaigns and vote in primaries — have built their entire identities around COVID-19 denial.

For two years, the pandemic was the main story in the country, and for many on the right, medical science denial became an obsession. Led by Trump’s eloquent denunciation of the dangers of the virus as a “hoax,” conservatives built an entire mythology about how they were underdog heroes for resisting public health measures. They threw tantrums about the lockdowns. They had attacks over masks. They refused to be vaccinated. The resistance to COVID-19 precautions became central to who they are for many of them. And once something is central to your identity, it’s hard to let go. Ask anyone who has left a church, a profession, or even a beloved hobby. Without “Christian” or “Accountant” or “D&D enthusiast” as a rock to anchor a sense of self, a person can often feel adrift. For those who have made being “anti-vaxxer” a pivot in how they see themselves, the fact that few people care anymore must be disheartening.

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It’s compounded by the fact that conservatives always need a BS story about how they are the “real” victims to justify sticking to a political ideology that’s about oppressing others. That’s why right-wing media is a steady stream of lies about how whites are the “real” victims of racism, that feminism has gone “too far,” or that LGBTQ rights are somehow a threat to conservatives. families. Anti-vaccine ideology fits this desire of the right to play the victim, giving them the opportunity to pretend to be persecuted by vaccine mandates.

For those who have made being “anti-vaxxer” a pivot in how they see themselves, the fact that few people care anymore must be disheartening.

Unfortunately, the false cries of oppression, coupled with the GOP dominance of federal courts, were a little too successful. Vaccine mandates have all but disappeared. For the Republican looking for opportunities for self-pity, there is no “bias” against the unvaccinated. It’s hard to be a victim of bigotry when no one cares enough to discriminate against you. That is why the attempts to revive the covid culture wars are becoming increasingly baroque. Conservatives have tried to go all out in a feeble attempt to get people to argue about the pandemic again. Unsurprisingly, these efforts were both maximally tasteless, mainly in the form of exploiting the health problems of strangers by blaming the vaccine.

A stampede of right-wing media personalities, including popular Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, tried to blame the vaccine on Damar Hamlin of the Buffalo Bills who suffered a heart attack. Perhaps even more disturbing, the obituary for anyone under 80 appears to be fair game for right-wing lunatics who act as if strokes, aneurysms, and accidents never happened before the Covid vaccine. In a particularly grim piece of grifting, Silk of the Trumpist duo “Diamond and Silk” went going so far as to insinuate that Diamond’s recent death was caused by the vaccine. (The death certificate lists the cause as heart disease.)

Watching conservatives try to keep a zombie culture war alive would be funny if there were no real consequences. But now that anti-vaccination is one of the stations of the Republican cross, there are serious public health implications. For example, the number of people receiving COVID-19 boosters has declined, leading to otherwise preventable deaths. No doubt many of the reasons are procrastination and pandemic fatigue, but there’s also reason to believe that many people, not just right-wingers, are justifying skipping the shot because they saw an anti-vaxx meme “died suddenly” on Facebook. To make matters worse, the anti-vaccine ideology is beginning to expand beyond Covid. Ohio is currently battling a terrible childhood measles outbreak due to newly radicalized anti-vaxxers not getting the shot for their kids.

Ultimately, I’m fascinated by what it tells us about politics and identity, to see so many right-wingers cling to the anti-vaccine hysteria long after most Americans are out of the pandemic. Escalating Republican bigotry and social media-fueled culture wars mean that many stupid ideas that once would have been held lightly to the right are instead being absorbed into their own selves. Once an idea stops being about what a person thinks and becomes part of who he or she is, it becomes exponentially more difficult for them to have a sense of rationality or proportion about it. In this sense, anti-vaccination is no longer just a passing term, but has morphed into something closer to a religion.

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