This Week in Corona Scams, who’s to blame for America’s vaccine refusal crisis? Following President Joe Biden’s announcement of his new vaccine mandate policies, a critical mass of media pundits and far-right politicians rushed to decry Biden’s “divisive” push for stricter vaccination requirements. But really, is this long-awaited push for stronger health safety rules to blame for the Influencer Infodemic that predated it?
WARNING: Today’s story includes some difficult subject matter, including some words and videos on COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths. Reader discretion is advised.
This is what happens when we allow public health to die at the hands of partisan politicking.
Immediately upon President Joe Biden’s announcement of stricter testing and vaccination rules for American workplaces in the federal government and across the private sector, Republicans on Capitol Hill and across the country rushed to condemn Biden’s alleged “lockdown!” agenda. Never mind that stronger public health safety rules and enforcement are precisely what we need in order to prevent the need for future rounds of widespread business shutdowns that these Republican politicians continue to love to hate. Now that they apply “lockdown!” labels to any and all attempts to protect public health, the vaccination rules that are coming online in other highly developed countries with broad support are already being treated as another partisan litmus test here in America.
Just like America’s overall COVID-19 pandemic experience, basic questions of public health have also become basic tests of partisan loyalty. Even though the Nevada Secretary of State’s office has no jurisdiction over public health policies, Republican candidate Jim Marchant officially announced his opposition to Biden’s vaccination policies on Tuesday. The Governor’s office does, however, and Gubernatorial candidate Joey Gilbert (R) has pretty much set the tone for his fellow Nevada Republicans on knee-jerk opposition to public health safety.
This behavior stretches far beyond Nevada. Even though he previously praised “The Trump Vaccines”, former President Donald Trump has since peddled baseless conspiracy theories about Biden’s vaccination policies. And even before Trump decided to awkwardly tie Biden’s vaccination policies to Biden’s otherwise completely unrelated decision to end America’s involvement in the Afghanistan War, Republicans across the nation were already raging against vaccination requirements to the point where they began to hint that their opposition stretches beyond just the COVID-19 vaccines.
Though a growing chorus of non-far-right politicians and public health professionals are now sounding the alarms on America’s growing anti-vaccine movement, the fact of the matter is that anti-vaxxers were weaponizing medical disinformation long before news broke of the first COVID-19 infections. Because far too many of us treated this as “politics as usual”, we’re now living with the deadly consequences.
This is nothing new. In fact, Republicans began to embrace the anti-vaccine movement well before COVID-19 began to spread.
Back in the heady days of May 2019, then presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg (D) made headline news for his star-studded Los Angeles campaign fundraiser hosted by none other than Goop founder and CEO Gwyneth Paltrow. Buttigieg made even more headlines with his support for “some exceptions” to public school vaccination requirements following that high-dollar fundraiser with Paltrow. The backlash was swift, and Buttigieg subsequently walked back his “some exceptions” statement.
Though the anti-vaccine movement had often been generalized as a “granola hippie and limousine liberal” phenomenon, by 2019 the bulk of the Democratic Party had already begun to move far away from any kind of “common ground” with the anti-vaccine movement. More specifically, Democrats in the California Legislature mostly stood with State Senators Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) and Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) to pass and implement SB 277 in 2015 to tighten school vaccination requirements following the December 2014 Disneyland measles outbreak.
Yet while Democrats began to distance themselves from the anti-vaccine movement, Republicans in California and elsewhere embraced them. As Dr. David Gorski thoroughly documents at Respectful Insolence, Fox News provided sympathetic coverage of prominent anti-vaxxers like Andrew Wakefield and Bob Sears well before SB 277 became California law. In Congress, Reps. Dan Burton (R-Indiana) and Bill Posey (R-Florida) became powerful “thought leaders” in the Republican Caucus as they elevated false conspiracy theories about vaccines and autism. Following SB 277 becoming California law, Republicans in multiple increasingly forged alliances with anti-vaccine lobbyists against “draconian vaccine mandates”. In 2016 they nominated Donald Trump for president, and they stood with Trump as he wholeheartedly endorsed anti-vaxxers’ false conspiracy theories.
This is no attempt to claim that Democrats are always right and Republicans are always wrong. Rather, this is part of our long-term effort to prevent mendacious attempts to rewrite history from succeeding. Though Trump and his campaign attempted to slap the “anti-vaccine” label onto President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris last year over Harris’ refusal to accept a COVID-19 vaccine developed under “Operation Warp Speed” that was not independently and scientifically proven, the fact of the matter is that Trump himself praised the dangerously unscientific non-vaccine “herd immunity” theory as part of his last-ditch effort to win the 2020 election that he ultimately lost. Trump himself courted the anti-vaccine movement for over a decade, and most of the rest of the Republican Party came around to embrace anti-vaxxers as part of their effort to expand their political base.
As we’ve previously explained, actions have consequences.
Across America, COVID-19 patients continue to crowd into hospitals. As a result, patients with other health emergencies face more hurdles in getting the care they need because of the ongoing flood of COVID-19 patients into emergency rooms and intensive care units. After a decade of Republican (and some Democratic) politicians complaining about “rationed health care”, a growing list of American hospitals must now ration care because they’re being overrun by COVID-19 patients. This is what public health experts have been warning about all along regarding COVID-19’s potential to overwhelm our health care system.
And then, we have the ever growing list of unnecessary COVID-19 deaths. While breakthrough infections can and do occur, we have overwhelming evidence that fully vaccinated people are incredibly well protected against COVID-19. On the flip side, data from Southern Nevada and elsewhere make it incredibly clear how unvaccinated patients face far greater risk of severe disease and death.
It’s one thing to just read the numbers. It’s something else to pour through the obituaries of these unnecessary COVID-19 deaths of the unvaccinated – people who thought “natural immunity” would save them, people who condemned these live-saving vaccines as “immoral” and “child killers”, and people who thought they were too “young and healthy” to fall prey to this disease.
Here’s the deadly danger of the unholy matrimony of “bad faith” and big bucks.
As we’ve been tracking for the past 18 months, the Influencer Infodemic has led to a more vocal and robust anti-vaccine contingency. However, this is not the result of some “grassroots, populist, ‘anti-lockdown movement’”. Rather, this is what happens when we allow “bad faith” political operatives and craven for-profit “business leaders” to monetize medical disinformation.
During the earliest days of COVID-19, Netflix debuted The Goop Lab despite massive evidence of Gwyneth Paltrow’s “alternative wellness” company making false health claims about their products for the purpose of driving up their sales. In the tried and anything-but-true world of multi-level marketing (MLM), some MLM’s have paired their false financial claims with false medical claims of “stunning weight loss!”, “no more pain!”, and “natural cures ‘they’ don’t want you to know!” Despite the FTC’s warning letters to multiple MLM’s last year, MLM’s like doTERRA and Young Living continue to evade the FTC’s warnings as their salespeople continue to make false medical claims in order to boost sales and recruit new downlines. And despite the mountain of evidence on Goop’s own medical mendacity, Netflix renewed The Goop Lab for a second season.
Long before COVID-19 became a pandemic, anti-vaccine lobbying groups like America’s Frontline Doctors, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Children’s Defense Fund, and the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER, or the group behind “The Great Barrington Declaration”) were already churning out disinformation and gradually taking advantage of the growing political polarization over school vaccination rules. And thanks to superstar “influencers” like Oprah Winfrey and Gwyneth Paltrow, formerly “fringe” anti-vaccine and all-around anti-science agitators like Kelly Brogan, Brogan’s spouse Sayer Ji, Christiane Northrup, “functional medicine guru” Will Cole, and Andrew Wakefield eventually burst into the mainstream media landscape.
When we try to fix it all with “easy shortcuts”, we only make it harder on ourselves.
As much as we want to believe that we can fix all our problems with “just the right mindset”, or “just these essential oils”, or “just this ‘business in a box’”, or “just these natural healing stones”, the real world doesn’t work like that. As much as we didn’t want to “lock down” last year, and as much as some of us don’t want to “lecture people into taking ‘the jab’” this year, the fact of the matter is that the only way we can survive this COVID-19 pandemic and eventually end it is to take action to protect public health.
Just because something appears to “bring in fast money” doesn’t mean it’s economically sustainable, and just because it appears to be “politically convenient” doesn’t mean it’s anything resembling sound public policy. As much as we want to believe that sound public health policies are “impractical”, “bad economics”, and/or “bad politics”, we continue to learn the hard way what happens when we try to pass off “bad faith” as “good strategy”.
If you have further questions about COVID-19 and your health, check Immunize Nevada for more information on vaccine availability in your area, check Nevada Health Response for testing in your area, and check Nevada 211 for more health care resources. If you’re in need of additional aid, check the Nevada Current’s and Battle Born Progress’ resource guides. If you can afford proper treatment and you are fortunate enough to help others in need, please donate to larger operations like Direct Relief and Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, and to local groups like Three Square. And for goodness sake, please maintain best practices to help stop the spread.
The cover photo was taken by me.