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The Anti-vax Brigade: Carrying on an Ignoble Tradition

The good news out of DC on Sunday was that the anti-mandate/anti-vax rally numbered only several thousand, far fewer than the 20,000 organizers had hoped for. The event was billed as a protest against mandates, not medicine, but the line between anti-mandate and anti-vaccine is sketchy at best. The two tend to march in lockstep.

The crowd had a right-wing and pro-Trump flavor with Trump memorabilia and attire, disdain for masks, and cheers of "Let's go Brandon" and "Fuck Joe Biden" all on display. The few who wore masks were treated to tirades by a man screaming "Take those masks off!" and "It's all a lie!" (Mettler, et al., Anti-vaccine activists march). Videos reportedly showed a woman wearing a yellow star and signs that read "I am not a lab rat" and "Stop the vaccine holocaust." (Choi, Thousands descend on DC). A small contingent of Proud Boys made the scene, loitering at the Reflecting Pool and getting into shouting matches with counterprotesters.

Speakers included Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Fox Nation host Lara Logan, last seen comparing Anthony Fauci to Nazi physician Josef Mengele, and other anti-vax stalwarts. People were already drifting away as Kennedy likened vaccine mandates to the Holocaust. The crowd dwindled to a few hundred by the time a speaker spewed debunked claims about links between vaccines and autism (Mettler, et al.).

Opposition to vaccines goes back to the introduction of the smallpox vaccine by Edward Jenner at the end of the18th century. Even before that, Tara Haelle tells us in an article at ScienceNews (Vaccine hesitancy is nothing new), the same mistrust and hostility was exhibited against variolation, a practice dating to at least the 1000s in Asia, Africa, and other parts of the world whereby serious smallpox infections were headed off by inducing mild cases through exposure to material from an infected person.

Onesimus, an enslaved man in Boston, taught the procedure to Puritan minister Cotton Mather, who in turn urged doctors to inoculate the public during a 1721 smallpox outbreak. Many refused, and Mather faced hostility: A small bomb was thrown through his window. Reasons given for avoiding variolation—particularly that it was unnatural to interfere with a person’s relationship with God—were the seeds of later anti-vaccination attitudes.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Anti-vaccination attitudes rooted in religious, political, and philosophical beliefs, misinformation, mistrust of government, science, and medicine, laced with generous doses of ignorance and hysteria, persist to the present. Talking points with appeals to personal autonomy, the right of parents to decide for their children, and religious views have been trotted out for centuries.

Reverend Edmund Massey in England called the vaccines "diabolical operations" in his 1772 sermon, "The Dangerous and Sinful Practice of Inoculation." He decried these vaccines as an attempt to oppose God’s punishments upon man for his sins. Similar religious opposition was seen in the "New World" even earlier, such as in the writings of Reverend John Williams in Massachusetts, who also cited similar reasons for his opposition to vaccines claiming that they were the devil’s work. (The Anti-vaccination Movement)

Vaccine mandates in the mid and late 19th century sparked opposition on the grounds of personal liberty just as they do today. In 1882 Frederick Douglass told a reporter that mandatory vaccines encroached on liberty and freedom of choice (Novak, The Long History). In Britain the Anti Vaccination League and the Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League were formed in response to the Vaccination Act of 1853, requiring smallpox vaccination for infants up to three months old, and the Act of 1867 extending this requirement to 14 years. These acts met with resistance by citizens proclaiming the right to control their bodies and decide for their children. Numerous anti-vaccination journals sprang up. "The Leicester Demonstration March of 1885 was one of the most notorious anti-vaccination demonstrations. There, 80,000–100,000 anti-vaccinators led an elaborate march, complete with banners, a child’s coffin, and an effigy of Jenner" (History of Anti-vaccination Movements).

Smallpox outbreaks led to vaccine campaigns that in turn triggered anti-vaccination activity. Anti-vaccination groups waged court battles against vaccine laws in several states.

In 1902, following a smallpox outbreak, the board of health of the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, mandated all city residents to be vaccinated against smallpox. City resident Henning Jacobson refused vaccination on the grounds that the law violated his right to care for his own body how he knew best. In turn, the city filed criminal charges against him. After losing his court battle locally, Jacobson appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1905 the Court found in the state’s favor, ruling that the state could enact compulsory laws to protect the public in the event of a communicable disease. This was the first U.S. Supreme Court case concerning the power of states in public health law. (History of Anti-vaccination Movements)

A surge in vaccine opposition in recent decades and the concomitant decrease in vaccinations has led to outbreaks of diseases once thought to have been eliminated or nearly eradicated. The problem is not just among the uneducated and the poor with limited access to health care. Sara Novak writes that "measles keeps popping up in large U.S. cities, such as Seattle, Portland, Phoenix, Austin and Kansas City. The outbreaks are typically due to white middle- and upper-class parents choosing not to immunize their children. And the problem appears to be getting worse" (The Long History).

The well-off urban parents referred to by Novak do not represent a demographic group typically associated with Trump worship and the hard right. My first thought when I reflected on this was to speculate about possible connections, parallels, correspondences between anti-vaccination attitudes and popular enthusiasm, often naïve and uncritical, for esoteric religious and spiritual doctrines, non-Western, nonscientific approaches to health and healing, the occult, shamanism, etc., a range of practices associated since the 1970s with the term "New Age." It makes for an odd brew that in some sense spans political and social divides without bridging them. Disparagement of all things Eurocentric, especially the Enlightenment, is a contemporary manifestation fashionable among progressives.

The common ground is a perspective that opens the door to spurious denials of vaccine safety and efficacy trafficked in by disreputable news outlets, sports and entertainment celebrities, unscrupulous scientists who engage in flawed and unethical research, and political operatives who see it as a winner on election day. It is almost cliché to remark that the internet and social media multiply the deleterious effect. The price is measured in 860,000 Covid-19 deaths in this country alone and counting, delays in critical health care because hospitals and other facilities are overwhelmed with Covid patients, and the resurgence of diseases once under control.

This pandemic would be enormously challenging and disruptive in any circumstances. Better vaccination rates would not have prevented suffering and death brought by the virus. Nor would they fix every economic, educational, and social impact that contributes to further shredding of an already frayed social fabric and general breakdown of social order. Opposition to vaccines and the false narratives that accompany it worsen the damage. In this Kennedy, Logan, and their accomplices carry on an ignoble tradition that is not going away. Maybe though some modest satisfaction can be taken from the fact that Sunday's rally amounted to so little.


Anti-vaccination History

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