The anti-vaccine movement, the "terraplanists" of COVID-19
Organizations like Freedom Angels are leading protests against stay-at-home orders while being accused of opportunism. Are we experiencing a "resurgence" of conspiracy activism?
"Small, loud and selfish," that's how California Senator and pediatrician Richard Pan described the anti-vaccine activists who demonstrated in front of the Sacramento Capitol Building on May 1, along with other groups that oppose the extension of the quarantine in a state whose governor has just announced the reopening of small businesses next Friday based on the low mortality rates — 5.8 per 100,000 people, compared to New York's 127.4.
The restart was necessary to alleviate the effects of the economic crisis that is hitting families hard. However, health experts are concerned that anti-vaxxers have seen the pandemic as an opportunity to spread their message and that they aspire to become reckless martyrs at a time when the entire planet is struggling towards a vaccine for COVID-19.
During the protest, several activists from an organization known as Freedom Angels, which led the demonstration on Friday and has announced another one for today, were arrested. One of its founders, Heidi Muñoz Gleisner, said in a Facebook video that "this is the time for people to realize and really evaluate the freedoms they are giving up, all in the name of perceived safety."
Groups such as Freedom Angels, which did not respond to the newspaper's request for an interview, are using the discourse of freedom, self-management and the need to return to work to continue sowing doubt about the American health system. This is in spite of more than two dozen health workers that have died in the United States fighting the virus.
A post shared by Marco Gutierrez (@realmarcoagutierrez) on
A dangerous discourse
Peter Hotez, professor of pediatrics and molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, called these activists opportunists and accused them of using citizens' lack of trust in government to "repaint the movement and remain relevant," but also warned that the strategy "can work."
In the specific case of Freedom Angels, they also criticized the closure of the armories, as citizens must be protected against theft and looting from hunger. This places them on the more conservative spectrum of a movement that is not limited to a single political tendency - environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is also very critical of vaccines and has accused the director of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, of urging the development of "risky and uncertain vaccines against COVID-19" to favor pharmaceutical companies.
The reality is that many of these activists are convinced that the coronavirus is not as fierce as it's portrayed, despite the fact that the United States is now the global epicenter of a tragedy with 1.2 million confirmed cases and more than 72,000 deaths.
This isn't the only group looking for a loophole to slip through in the midst of the chaos. Texans for Vaccine Choice also asked the Texas governor to commit to making vaccines against the virus optional.
"All these groups ultimately have the same message: We want you to get sick," said Dr. Pan.
While Dr. Rupali J. Limaye, who studies vaccine behavior at Johns Hopkins University, said that "one of the things we're finding is that the rhetoric is pretty similar between anti-vaccines and those who are demanding reopening." They also include Tea Party activists and armed militia members, who have interconnected interests all surrounding a rather questionable claim of "individual freedom."
"My hope and prayer is that all Americans will stand up and realize that they have to be active participants in their government," said Heidi Muñoz of Freedom Angels. "From day one, it's been difficult to always be punished as anti-vaccine, and these protests are anti-blockade punishments. We have always been pro-freedom."
Although small and limited to a few hundred people, the protests against social alienation began in Michigan and eventually spread to other states such as Texas, Colorado, Maryland and Wisconsin.
It's not the first time that one epidemic has led to another social one. The anti-vaccine movement targeted the measles vaccine in 2015, with many mothers showing up with their unvaccinated children. They did so again in late 2019 when they called for a referendum against California's latest vaccine law.
Last Friday's protest in Sacramento was the largest to date. We are experiencing a new outbreak of anti-vaccines and, as with viruses, this one is mutating too.