Anti-science attitudes in America are proving lethal

Movements against vaccines and masks have coalesced into a formidable but destructive force that needs to be checked

Anti-vaccination protesters stand outside of the New Jersey State House as the Assembly passes a bill to limit vaccine religious exemptions on Monday, Dec. 16, 2019, in Trenton.Immigrant Drivers License
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There is no vaccine for the Covid-19 pandemic but that has not stopped the conspiracy theorists playing a profoundly important role in the course of the outbreak.

The global anti-vaccine pushback, which is particularly powerful in the US, has metamorphosed through the emergence of the coronavirus. German protest groups have proliferated on the back of a decades-old Stuttgart-based schools movement, while France has seen a groundswell of alternative medicine proponents.

As bad as the coronavirus tragedy is, there is an enormous constituency that is getting ready for a battle of wills over the vaccine. Never before has a treatment been so anticipated. If it emerges, it could be delivered to an unprecedented six billion people. After all, the old as well as the young will need a shot at the same time.

Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms have betrayed promises to reign in the spread of fake theories and pseudo advice. So one of the most virulent information storms in history is building up. While the vaccine is the future crescendo, the fight over health and preventative measures is the here and now.

The current advice on stopping the spread of Covid-19 has encountered massive resistance. The anti-vaxxers movement has spread its tentacles through US society – and elsewhere – by protesting the lockdown.

Vociferous campaigns against masks and face coverings are the most obvious products of this refusenik strain. Its supporters argue that the state is exerting control over individuals through public health measures. Speaking to a Florida official commission hearing last week, one woman opined that wearing a mask was "trying to throw out God's wonderful breathing system".

The latest ruse among mask opponents is carrying laminated cards that proclaim that the holder is exempt from any government regulation stipulating its adoption.

The cause of not wearing a mask has taken off and has echoes of the 1918 leagues in the US against wearing a face covering. Sadly, official advice from scientists and regulators on preventive face masks has been weak in many countries. The political edge to the debate means that video-fuelled social media campaigns are all the more vociferous and effective.

For a taste of how all the issues provided by Covid-19 link together, look at the toxic swamp of attacks on Bill Gates.

The US computing pioneer has set aside nearly $50 billion for his own charitable foundation. If the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was a country, it would rank as something like the 90th richest state in the world. Yet conspiracists twist this giving into an argument that the pandemic is a tool for Mr Gates to control the world. He is said to have the World Health Organisation under his spell. Now, by dint of America's withdrawal of WHO funding, the foundation could end up as its largest source of funds. But that is a long chalk from asserting that he controls the UN body.

A woman holds a sing with the image of the Co-chair and Trustee of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bill Gates, during a demonstration called by small businessmen affected by the government's mandatory quarantine imposed for more than 13 weeks, to protest against the quarantine and the expropriation of the Vicentin agro-industrial company on the Obelisk in Buenos Aires, June 20, 2020. Argentine President Alberto Fernandez announced on June 8 the nationalisation of soy giant Vicentin, which was the country's largest grain exporter until it entered a crisis at the end of last year. / AFP / ALEJANDRO PAGNI
Bill Gates and his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have faced opposition all over the world, including in Buenos Aires, Argentina. AFP

Other online claims are that Mr Gates controls a patent holder that unleashed the coronavirus. Posts have recycled a fabricated rumour that Mr Gates has an active agenda to reduce the world population, either by sterilisation and enforced birth control, or by unleashing diseases. Other conspiracies hone in on questions over why the foundation has been organising “pandemic-prepping” events – frequently referred to as "Event 201" – to be ready to capitalise on an upcoming novel virus on the loose.

The foundation rebuts any figures that are thrown its way but it has little hope of reversing the narrative. The conspiracists have no heed to reason. Confusion is not limited to mobilising a fearful minority. As the social media platforms sowed the wind, America now reaps the whirlwind with its daily infection rates hitting four records in succession last week.

A paper from the Brookings Institution has shown how the country can still move on to the next phase. By marrying the work of epidemiologists with that of economists, the paper said that the infection rate could be contained even as businesses re-opened. It warned that a renewed lockdown would be disastrous.

“If countered by a second round of economic shutdowns, short-term unemployment could become long term, firms could close, and prospects for a quick recovery could be significantly impaired.”

Instead, it argues that by accepting four principles, the US can still contain the worst ravages of the outbreak. These are to place limitations on mass gatherings, especially those indoors; encouragement of widespread wearing of masks; increased testing; and special shielding protections for the vulnerable, particularly for the elderly in care homes.

The projected death toll would still rise from the current 130,000 level to about 160,000 by the end of the year. By contrast, a failure to impose any restrictions and rejecting a second wave shutdown would see a death toll of 450,000 by January.

It is therefore important to remember that dangerous times, both online and in the streets, should not trump the basic facts of how disease spreads.

Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief of The National