The announcement of the third-wave lockdown this spring laid me very low – so low that I couldn’t find the energy to write. Since then I have received both of my shots, and the warm weather has allowed me to connect with people on a regular basis. Both of these things have buoyed my mood sufficiently that even though it may be that we will have to lockdown again due to the Delta variant (although I think not), I feel sufficiently revitalized to write again.
The peculiar phenomenon of the antivaxxers is foremost in my mind these days, and the certainty and intractability of their stance has led me to an over-arching conclusion; I believe they have now morphed into a cult. They display a similar blind adherence to non-proven, non-sensical assertions as do cult members, spouting absurd theories about vaccines holding tracker chips, or making the patently ridiculous claim that the pandemic is a hoax. They also cling to their beliefs like cult members by maintaining a willful ignorance of anything that could undermine their position, such as the empirical fact that over 90% of those currently hospitalized with Covid-19 in the U.S. and Canada are unvaccinated.
The most obvious explanation for the existence of so many antivaxxers and anti-maskers is that, as my father used to say, “The average person is an idiot.” While this is probably the main reason we are seeing so much opposition to reasonable measures, I believe there are two other factors which have heavily contributed to so many people falling into a pit of suspicion and disbelief. The first is the massive proliferation and ready availability of media, both mainstream and social. There were two instances in the past century when citizens in Canada and the U.S. had to pull together and make sacrifices for the greater good – the Depression and the Second World War. People’s basic kindness and collegiality were on massive display during both of these difficult times. My grandmother had two young girls at home and very little to spare in the 1930s, but my mother told me she none the less regularly gave food to passing hobos who otherwise could well have starved to death. I have read and seen enough about that terrible decade to know that she was far from alone in displaying such generosity. There were drives for materials needed for the war effort during WW II, and everybody willingly went without all kinds of things to ensure that the boys overseas had what they needed. Citizens understood that enjoying the many advantages of living in a free and civil society sometimes means making personal sacrifices, and they gladly did so without any thought of recognition or reward. Occasional dissenting voices were quickly and easily shamed into silence.
Fast forward to 2020, where the disgruntled, selfish, and downright paranoid can access platforms in their bedrooms from which to anonymously disseminate their fear and craziness to an audience of millions, or in the case of Facebook billions, of others. It only makes sense that casting such a wide net is going to pull in a great number of similarly deluded people. The platform then becomes a meeting place where ridiculous ideas are not only promulgated, but also amplified. Add to that the mainstream media, which regularly panders to the audience by covering so-called “Twitter storms.” Such instances are generally less “storms” than a few disgruntled people spewing baseless nonsense, but even the most specious argument is given legitimacy when reported by established news outlets. These patently absurd theories and assertions then get repeated and retweeted, gaining credence as they circulate into the general public at lightening speed.
Social media algorithms then compound the problem. Suppose a person who is generally level-headed and skeptical of conspiracy theories decides, purely out of curiosity, to see what the antivaxxers are on about. They go to Google and look up a few articles on the subject, which prompts Google’s algorithm to start offering them more and more information in this same vein. It doesn’t matter that none of the claims are proven or even plausible, their sheer volume over time begins to convince that otherwise sensible person that there must be something to them. I know three people who are refusing to get vaccinated, all of whom I thought were smart enough to understand the need, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had unknowingly been sucked into a social media antivaxxer rabbit hole.
Social media has also created a generation which communicates almost exclusively via technology. Their primary interactions with the world are through Instagram posts and tweets, and many are content to be in virtual relationships, blithely calling people they’ve never met in person their significant other. Having their most frequent and meaningful social interactions through the conduit of electronic devices has created a huge pool of individuals who have never learned the intricate yet crucial lessons of how to humanely negotiate face-to-face or large group interactions. They are also unaware of their inter-dependence with, and mutual responsibility to, other people. The enforced isolation of Covid lockdowns has only added to this problem. Many young people are saying that they don’t need the shots because even if they got the virus, they would almost certainly weather it with ease. While this is undoubtedly true, it demonstrates that they have no understanding of their larger obligation to those in society who are not so lucky. They don’t feel responsible to others because their experiences of community have ironically been forged in isolation.
The second contributor to the massive anti-vaccination movement is a basic misunderstanding of the difference between a right and a privilege. No one is arguing a person’s right to determine what happens to their own body (except those trying to shut down abortion access, which I will deal with at another time). You certainly have a right not to get the shots, not to wear a mask, not to wash your hands, and not to physically distance. The confusion comes when you assert that you also have the right to go into situations where your attendance is actually a privilege being afforded you by whomever owns the business or building you wish to enter, or by those who organized the event you wish to attend. These individuals are perfectly within their rights to express and maintain conditions which must be met before they grant you the privilege of coming inside, along the lines of, “No shirt, no shoes, no service.” Certainly you have a right to refuse vaccination, but that will preclude you from going into government service buildings. Don’t want to wear a mask – great. But understand that this means you could very well be denied access to a privately owned restaurant. You certainly can refuse to practice social distancing at an outdoor concert, just don’t be surprised if security asks you to leave.
I encountered a similar misunderstanding amongst students which I think is analogous. I always gave the kids a breakdown of my rules the first time their class came into the library at the beginning of the school year. One of the things I made clear was that if they wanted something from me, they needed to start their request with “May I…?” and not “Can I…?”, since the former is a way of asking for permission, while the latter is simple a way of establishing if one is physically able. It is the same with rights and privileges – you are able to refuse the shots and shun masks, but doing so will jeopardize whether you are then allowed to do certain things. I would also argue that while you do have a right to ignore Covid safety measures, you also might want to think about the rights of those around you. Surely my right to feel safe and not catch a potentially deadly disease is as legitimate as the right of antivaxxers and anti-maskers to flout public health recommendations. I guess it’s easier for them to ignore this inconvenient fact, and perhaps some are selfish enough that they simply don’t care if they infect someone else.
I saw a Toronto Star headline last week describing how people opposed to the governmental vaccine passport have begun picketing outside hospitals. This revelation was tremendously upsetting. It is beyond disappointing to realize that I live amongst people who are so unappreciative and self-serving as to interfere with the comings and goings of emergency rooms while simultaneously targeting the one segment of society which has heroically stepped up throughout the entirety of this trying and frightening time – health care professionals. It is both stupid to demonstrate outside of hospitals since the people inside had no say in passing the mandate, and unkind to make medical personnel run a gauntlet of derision and negativity just to get to work. They are already exhausted, traumatized, and demoralized after fighting this virus for the last year and a half, and one has to wonder how many will find having to wade through these ingrates the final stressor which forces them to walk away from medicine entirely. Doctors, and especially nurses, are already leaving in record numbers, and who can blame them?
I was feeling sad and helpless the day after reading about these latest protests when I went down to Toronto to have lunch with some family members. I am happy to report that this gathering produced two antidotes to my funk. The first came when one of my nephews informed me that his partner is pregnant and they are expecting their son next January. This would have been welcome news at any time, but was especially heartening given my hopeless mood. Life goes on. The second occurred after lunch when we made our way back to the apartment by way of the U. of T. downtown campus, my old stomping grounds. It was Labour Day weekend, and the quads were full of excited, expectant young people being dropped off at their dorms by beaming parents. There were groups of new students, all masked and practicing social distancing, roaming the grounds while chanting their college names. The air was rife with potential and new beginnings, and the general optimism in the air leeched into my depressed spirit as I walked, suffusing me with a sense of hope. I am frustrated and annoyed with the selfish individuals whose stupid decisions are extending this miserable pandemic, but I do understand that eventually we will get through it. In other words, I am in exactly the same emotional space as most rational people at the moment. We all just have to hang in there and try not to let the actions of a relatively small minority bring us down.