Fall is officially here. In October, as the leaves begin to fall and our gardens drop their last leaves, the air itself is darker.
It should perhaps come as no surprise to me that the anti-vaccine movement has taken a sinister turn as well. It is not surprising, but it is deeply disturbing. The vehemence of resistance goes beyond vaccine hesitancy or the simple lack of access to information that prevailed earlier in the pandemic.
As businesses, school systems and municipalities crack down, handing out carrots or sticks or money orders to their employees, students or citizens, a minority fiercely cries out scandal. School boards are divided as the public disrupts meetings, and even some elected officials say mask warrants are child abuse and vaccines are dangerous. Hospitals and nursing homes, already besieged by the ravages of COVID, are haunted by the prospect that by demanding vaccines they risk losing desperately needed workers.
Just recently, right here in New Hampshire, a group of anti-vaccine protesters interrupted a scheduled Executive Council meeting to discuss federal assistance to our state’s efforts to fight the pandemic. They were angry and threatening in their opposition to these efforts. The malice of their threat: “We know where you live!” still hovers in the air.
How could it have come to this? (Spoiler alert: I’m not sure anyone actually has the full answer to this question, and I’m sure my answer is only partially complete!) There are a few ideas worth considering, however. The bottom line is that we have to understand this before this movement becomes more vicious.
I’ve learned that little of this skepticism or opposition to public health measures is actually new. Witches, the so-called healers of medieval and later colonial times, with their secret concoctions, have been persecuted. The superstitious public has sought to blame them for the plague and a host of other evils. The early proponents of smallpox inoculation in colonial America met resistance as they attempted to impose widespread prevention of this horrible disease. At the start of the 20th century, there were still pockets of resistance to smallpox vaccines. There has been a group of anti-childhood immunization vaccines for years clinging to their debunked theories.
In an age when access to information was limited, it is understandable that some people fall back on fear or superstition, or make decisions based on principles like personal freedom. It seemed wise when the freedom of the individual did not collide with the freedom of others, as it is now. Likewise, when pharmaceutical manufacturing was not tightly regulated, some skepticism that companies were looking to make money on them, or that the cure was worse than the cure, made sense.
But the sheer stubbornness of those on board the anti-vaccine movement today, when the science is clear and the evidence for the effectiveness and safety of vaccines is overwhelming, is astounding.
What is emerging from the shadows is that our disagreements on these issues lie on several fault lines. Income and education play a small role, at least, but religious beliefs and geography play more. Political affiliation can play the biggest role of all, to a degree never seen in previous debates about public health measures.
Personally, I come to the conclusion that the real cauldron of this witches brew will turn out to be the Internet. For all the importance of the Internet in our lives, its bubbling mix of devious search algorithms, echo chambers, deep counterfeits, and ripe platforms for disinformation sowers has torn us apart along the lines of loophole that have formed in recent years. The political divide has become deepest of all, even in the face of the facts about preventing the spread of this virus, as simple as they seem to me.
The solution is simple but incredibly difficult. We must continue to reach out across this divide. We have to fall back on a personal connection, which we seem to have lost. If we don’t, the pandemic will have its own way of doing it for us.
(Millie LaFontaine from Concord is a retired neurologist.)