In the midst of a health crisis when our only hope is a new vaccine, many have begun to wonder how those with anti-vaccination sentiments might respond to the current COVID-19 crisis. Many have guessed that the only natural, rational response would be for anti-vaxxers to change their minds and wholeheartedly embrace the prospect of a new vaccine. After all, there is a prevailing theory that anti-vaccine sentiment arises at least in part from a collective amnesia about the true scourge of vaccine-preventable diseases. Vaccines, so the argument goes, are a victim of their own success, resulting in a situation in which people do not remember why they are getting vaccinated because the diseases that the vaccines prevent against have been absent for so long. If this theory is true, then in a situation in which we are face-to-face with the ill effects of an infectious pathogen, we should all readily embrace a new vaccine.
It turns out that the anti-vaxxer response to COVID-19 and the prospect of a new vaccine, much like science denialism more generally, is much more complex than that. The response also seems to suggest that the idea that amnesia about diseases that have been largely conquered by vaccines is probably not the primary reason for anti-vaccine sentiments. So how have people with anti-vaccine tendencies responded to COVID-19? While it’s still too soon to have a complete picture of this, especially since no new vaccine has been rolled out yet, several interesting patterns have emerged.
Staunch anti-vaxxers still oppose vaccines, including potential new coronavirus vaccines, and are active at spreading misinformation. Those who have not made up their minds about whether vaccines are safe are now wavering more than they were previously. Whereas before they may have been slightly more inclined in the anti-vaccine direction, now they are questioning those viewpoints more. They do seem to remain amenable to being persuaded.
Public figures, such as politicians and musicians, who are staunch anti-vaxxers are facing more opposition now. Crisis situations have the tendency to bring certain background issues into high relief. People who may have found anti-vaxxers to be somewhat irritating but not a direct threat are now viewing them differently and thus more social pressure is being placed on anti-vaxxers to abandon their views and change their behaviors.
Still, anti-vaxxers are very active and very vocal, both about potentially refusing a new vaccine for coronavirus but also increasingly voicing conspiracy theories about coronavirus itself. These conspiracy theory claims run the gamut, from claiming the virus is not as bad as public officials note to warning people that public officials and government bodies like the CDC are not to be trusted.
Another very disturbing development is the migration of objections to a putative coronavirus vaccine away from a scientific and health basis and toward a more general political basis. Anti-vaxxers are now linking stay-at-home orders and the hoped-for vaccines as assaults on liberty and freedom. Although anti-vaxxers have always made personal liberty a part of their message, by incorporating objections to a coronavirus vaccine into the broader context of freedom, they have taken this link to an extreme.
Heidi Munoz Gelisner, a leader in anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown protests, told a reporter at the New York Times, “we have always been about freedom.” This adds a new dimension to our efforts to ensure that there is swift uptake of a coronavirus vaccine as soon as it becomes available. Targeting the pro-vaccine message on issues of vaccine safety and efficacy may not address this broader issue. Of course, the notion that vaccines involve a personal liberty aspect is faulty: it is long recognized that no one has the right to jeopardize the health of others, especially children, and therefore that democracies can legitimately enforce vaccine requirements. Nevertheless, Americans are perhaps more insistent about a broad range of personal liberties than citizens of any other country and therefore we will have to consider ways to address this aspect of anti-vaccination sentiment as well.
More than 90 vaccines against the virus that causes COVID-19 are now in various stages of development and the most optimistic predictions would give us a viable one in a year to 18 months. Research by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, indicates that we can no longer rely on debunking myths about vaccines after they have been promulgated throughout the media. Rather, her work calls for “proactive messaging,” in which groups of experts begin to thwart anti-vaccination messages before a crisis promoted by misinformation begins. Thus, we need to start immediately to use evidence-based communication methods to preempt the different varieties of misinformation about a vaccine for COVID-19. There is no time to waste.
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