Richard Price, Leyton and Wanstead CLP, examines where conspiracy theories and vaccine hesitancy overlap.
Back at the dawn of the internet age, it was commonly referred to as the information superhighway. Its creators probably didn’t reckon with it also becoming the most efficient method of spreading a tsunami of disinformation and conspiracy theories.
Most people will be aware of at least some of the multiplying conspiracy theories surrounding Covid-19: that it escaped from a lab; that it’s linked to 5G mobile phone networks; that it’s a hoax; that it’s a sinister population control scheme mastered by Bill Gates and/or a secret world government; and many more.
As the pandemic developed, the conspiracy theories mutated: that hand sanitizer, social distancing, masks and lockdowns don’t “work” and are a cover for totalitarian rule; that death counts are inflated; that it was a myth that ICUs were full. Alongside that were claims for wonder cures and other fakery.
Once we got to early autumn, the emphasis shifted to vaccine conspiracies – claims that they hadn’t been tested properly; that they too didn’t work; that a vaccine had been available early in the pandemic but was withheld; that they contain secret microchips; that they affect fertility.
Equally insidious were theories that came with a veneer of scientific or political authority. The widely debunked Great Barrington Declaration advocated achieving herd immunity by allowing the virus to spread while carrying out “focussed protection” of those most at risk. Aside from the obvious likelihood of health services being overwhelmed, it took no account of people becoming infected more than once or of long Covid symptoms, and did not advocate any form of social distancing.
A widely circulated video of a former Zambian vice-president stressed that the country’s inhabitants should not be injected with anything produced by Russians or Americans without rigorous Zambian testing. Perhaps he should have concentrated his fire on the country’s health minister who was sacked shortly afterwards for distributing leaking condoms and other sub-standard medical supplies.
Most people drawn to conspiracy theories tend to have lower educational attainment, and are very unlikely to read peer-reviewed rebuttals of this pernicious disinformation. They are much more likely to follow videos that act as gateway drugs to other conspiracy theories, guided by algorithms. This despite the obvious incompatibility of many of these theories with each other.
So what is the relationship between Covid and anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories and politics? Clearly, not all anti-vaxxers and anti-lockdown activists come from the right. Piers Corbyn is a former Labour councillor and member of the International Marxist Group. David Icke, despite being as mad as a bag of ferrets and dabbling in anti-semitism, is not obviously on the right. Covid-scepticism has been noted among some Evangelical churches and North London’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.
But have no doubt that the main driver has been the Trump-supporting Covid-scepticism-on-steroids alt-right in the United States. Not only the triumphant non-distanced mask-free rallies, but the QAnon-fuelled white supremacist fantasies of Trump battling a satanic paedo deep state. And it’s not hard to see why. While much of this nonsense plays on irrational fears, its other defining feature is an indifference to the death toll and a lack of any positive policies to contain the pandemic. It’s not difficult to see why small statists who believe that a fully funded health service would create a dictatorship would passively let the pandemic run its course.
What a tragic irony that views embraced by white supremacists have found an echo in some of Britain’s most vulnerable ethnic minority communities, where death rates have been up to four times higher than their white counterparts. A degree of vaccine hesitancy entirely understandable in BAME communities. They have encountered racism in the NHS both as patients and workers, inequalities in treatment and health outcomes and the hostile environment, all of it within the wider context of the Windrush scandal, Grenfell Tower and Black Lives Matter. Black women are four times and Asian women twice as likely as white women to die in pregnancy and childbirth.
An analysis of staff at the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust published in mid-February showed that only 58.5% of South Asian staff and 36.8% of black staff had received the vaccine compared to 70.9% of white staff. Vaccine hesitancy among BAME communities should be tackled with tact, persuasion and empathy. The spreading of misinformation by NHS staff to patients should be treated as a serious disciplinary offence. It is impractical to make vaccination compulsory. But we cannot be neutral in the biggest global health crisis for a century in the struggle between science for the public good and the snake oil conspiricists.