The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it a number of significant challenges to families and communities across the world throughout the two years since it first arrived into global public consciousness.
It took from us some of our closest and most beloved friends and relatives, prevented us from engaging in our usual daily routines by forcing us to work from home and limit our interaction with individuals outside of our own households, and generally instilled within us a greater feeling of anxiety about when, and critically how, the situation would resolve itself.
Thankfully, after months of difficult lockdowns, the global scientific community were able to develop several effective vaccinations that could reduce the severity of the symptoms of COVID-19, making it far less fatal if contracted by some of the more vulnerable members of our society, and meaning that people would once again be able to resume their daily routines of work and leisure that had been so brutally interrupted by the pandemic.
In spite of the clear and tireless devotion demonstrated by governments around the world to produce an effective vaccine, and the rigorous testing process they will naturally have had to pass through, there remained a number of vocal opponents, not only to the vaccination, but also to the very definite stance governments were adopting about encouraging all members of the public to have it.
This ensemble, known popularly as the ‘Anti-Vax Movement’, felt uneasy about the relative immediacy with which functional vaccinations appeared to be being produced and diffused, and explicitly opposed the social sanctions being placed on those who opted out of having the vaccine.
This article will explore the rise of the anti-vax movement, first charting the development of anti-vax rhetoric in popular culture, then considering the prominence of the movement within the COVID-19 pandemic specifically.
It will also advocate for a more open and engaged discussion with those who oppose the COVID-19 vaccines, arguing that this form of discussion and method of education will be ultimately more effective in convincing ‘anti-vaxxers’ of the genuine necessity and general benefit of the medication they so solemnly oppose.
Understanding the Principles of the Modern Anti-Vax Movement
While the anti-vax movement may have arrived into broader public and political consciousness in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic that effectively locked down all social functions for two consecutive years, its roots can be traced back further that 2020 and the start of COVID-19.
Whlie there has always been some form of opposition to large-scale vaccination programmes since the advent of modern day vaccinology, real, popular resistance towards vaccines in the modern day can be largely attributed to the publication of Andrew Wakefield’s paper in 1998, which linked the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine to the development of a form of ‘late-onset autism’.
Wakefield’s paper called upon decades of anti-vax rhetoric that had dominated conversations in the 1970s and 1980s, a rhetoric that was driven by ‘changing views on bodily autonomy, the role of the state in medical care, fears held over from the rollout of the first polio vaccines, and an earlier scare surrounding the diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis vaccine that started in 1974’.
This anti-vax rhetoric has been shaped and warped by the arrival of social media platforms in the 2010s, to a point where it can now be defined by a few very explicit principles:
- Firstly, social media has enabled scientific misinformation to become very accessible to a very large proportion of the world’s population, making a general fear of the potentially adverse side effects of vaccinations a very popular concern among anti-vaxxers.
- The movement is also critical of state intrusion of the body; the necessity for the national and international vaccination programmes that brought us out of the Coronavirus pandemic came with a perceived widespread government invasion of individual persons, with anti-vaxxers deeming this a level of state interference which could and should not be mandated on a global scale.
- There are widely circulated conspiracy theories within anti-vax circles that point to the presence of a ‘Big Pharma’ initiative, whereby medical and pharmaceutical companies operate in the interest of their own profits, very often concealing the most effective cures and vaccinations for some of the world’s most dangerous and prominent diseases, for financial gain.
- Lastly, anti-xaxxers largely reject the notion that anyone but a child’s own parent ‘might know what’s best for them’, taking sole ownership over their families’ health and wellbeing, without the presumed dangerous intervention of corrupt scientific organisations and vaccination distributors.
The largely abysmal handling of the Coronavirus pandemic in the United Kingdom only served to exacerbate the division between proponents and opponents of the COVID-19 vaccinations, for obvious reasons.
The very same people who had suffered disproportionate economic and health consequences as a result of the government’s mismanagement of the pandemic, were now being asked to ‘trust the same structures’ that had failed to effectively provide adequate resources and social protection for them during the same period. Naturally, people were going to have questions about the vaccine, given the clear and obvious governmental gaffes made during the height of the pandemic
What we now face, is the problem of rectifying this rift between those who have chosen to take the vaccine, and those who have not.
Remedying the Situation
It is, of course, in our general interest to rectify the widening schism between ‘vaxxers’ and ‘anti-vaxxers’. A more united community and population working together against emerging zoonotic diseases can only be more beneficial in effectively combating them.
The policy adopted by the United Kingdom’s government during the pandemic was to virtually silence and censor anti-vax posts and articles appearing on social media. Naturally, the reduction of misinformation, that can be so easily and widely disseminated across social media platforms, will make it easier to identify the factual information provided for us by the global scientific community.
One unintended effect, however, of shutting down anti-vax groups in social and public spheres, has been the silencing of those with legitimate questions, ‘for fear of shame and ridicule’, leading them to harbour greater suspicion for public health authorities and sympathise more meaningfully with anti-vax rhetoric.
Essentially, the censorship and public ridicule of anti-vax rhetoric will only entrench opponents of the COVID-19 vaccination programme deeper into their opposition. What is needed is a clear, consistent, regular, frequent, and accessible public health message, issued both by governments and scientific communities, that will confront anti-vaxxers with real and tangible evidence, helping them to better understand the nature of the Coronavirus vaccination programme.
Outside of this, social media users and members of the public should be encouraged not to shut down anti-vaxxers who are keen to discuss their grievances. We should instead be urging anti-vaxxers to observe the plethora of benefits humanity has been able to enjoy as a result of global mass vaccination programmes, and contrast these successes with the recent setbacks we have encountered as a result of prominent campaigns of anti-vax misinformation.
The modern age of social media has encouraged this division, however, with clearer and more effective communication between ‘vaxxers’ and ‘anti-vaxxers’, and a more readily adopted desire for education over censorship, we can work to resolve this prominent socio-political conflict.
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- Armitage, R., ‘Online ‘Anti-Vax’ Campaigns and COVID-19: Censorship is Not the Solution’, in Public Health (2020), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7834951/.
- Berman, Jonathan M., Anti-Vaxxers: How to Challenge a Misinformed Movement (The MIT Press, 2020), https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=DL74DwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&dq=anti+vax+movement&ots=8htMro0KBq&sig=RPgiOPpDPgG3PlGnLYhThU40YoA&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=anti%20vax%20movement&f=false.
- Mylan, Sophie, Hardman, Charlotte, ‘COVID-19, Cults, and the Anti-Vax Movement’, in The Lancet, Vol. 397, Issue 10280 (2021), 1181, https://www.thelancet.com/action/showPdf?pii=S0140-6736%2821%2900443-8.