National Post (Latest Edition)
Threats we can’t ignore
Anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists could prolong the pandemic and worsen our lives for years to come
Since the start of the pandemic, we have been holding out hope on two things: that we can implement proper mitigation strategies to limit the spread of the infection and better treat those who become ill; and that we will eventually be able to develop a vaccine that will protect us against the virus going forward. Unfortunately, it’s looking increasingly likely that these two keys to salvation will be scuttled by the tinfoil-hat crowd, a group of people that society can no longer afford to ignore.
We’re already seeing growing opposition to such public health measures as mask- wearing and lockdowns in Canada, the United States and Europe. While opposition to such measures in the U. S. is largely political — thanks, in no small part, to a president who seems to think that drinking bleach is preferable to donning a mask — we can thank our lucky stars that Canadian politicians of all stripes agree that some measures should be taken to contain the virus, and that those decisions should be informed by science.
But that has not stopped anti- maskers from taking to the streets throughout this country. Montreal has seen numerous protests in recent weeks, including one that attracted thousands of demonstrators. An Ontario man was fined for breaking quarantine to speak at an anti-mask rally in downtown Toronto, after returning from speaking at another one in Ireland.
In Calgary, a video went viral of a maskless woman berating customers and staff for wearing masks inside a local fabric store. Since then, numerous businesses have come forward to complain about their staff being abused by customers who are unhappy about being asked to comply with the city’s mask bylaw. A small group of angry protesters
even took to the streets in Campbell River, B.C., despite that province not having a mandatory mask order.
And, as the National Post’s Sharon Kirkey reported recently, health officials across the country have been harassed by people who are fed up with public health measures. B.C.’S chief medical officer of health, Dr. Bonnie Henry, has even received death threats.
A recent poll suggests that the vast majority of Canadians ( 88 per cent) are opposed to the demonstrations, and a similar number ( 87 per cent) believe that wearing masks in public is their civic duty, regardless of whether governments try to force them to. This is in sharp contrast to the United States, where a July poll found that the majority of Democrats (86 per cent) and independents ( 71 per cent) wear masks in public, but less than half (48 per cent) of Republicans do.
Support for public health measures south of the border clearly runs along par
tisan lines. A quick scan of some of the anti- mask Facebook groups here in Canada, however, reveals that they are far less political. Instead, they’re filled with conspiracy theories about how masks don’t work, how the whole pandemic is a hoax and how we don’t actually need a vaccine.
This is a problem because, although masks provide some benefits for the people who wear them, their main function is to stop someone who is infected from spreading it to others. And that only works if that person is wearing a mask. The more people there are walking around without masks and disobeying other public health measures, such as social distancing and limiting the size of groups, the faster the virus will spread and the harder it will be to contain.
Even so, many are still holding out hope that we will soon develop a vaccine that will stop the whole thing in its tracks and allow life to return to normal. Yet there is increasing evidence
that a vaccine will not be the panacea most of us hope it will be.
Recent evidence suggests that immunity to the coronavirus may last for only somewhere between four and 12 months. If this proves to be the case, we may all end up having to take a booster shot every year for the rest of our lives.
One way to prevent this would be to immunize enough people throughout most of the world in a short enough period of time that, combined with tried- andtrue mitigation strategies, we are able to virtually eliminate the virus within the human population. This would be a massive undertaking, but not outside the realm of possibility. If it were to happen, we would just have to ensure that we had enough vaccines on hand to inoculate a local population the next time someone came in contact with an infected bat.
But given the growing opposition to vaccines of all kinds in recent years, which has been fuelled by online
conspiracy theorists who falsely claim that they cause autism and other harms, this is unlikely to happen. (A Pew poll back in May found that 72 per cent of Americans would take a vaccine once it becomes available, which seems high, but is likely not enough to create herd immunity, if immunity is transient.)
Measles, for example, is a disease for which we have a safe and effective vaccine. It was once believed to have been virtually eliminated in Canada and other developed countries. But, thanks to the anti-vaxxer movement, it has returned with a vengeance: last year saw more measles cases around the world than we’ve seen in a generation.
Despite the fact that we haven’t yet developed a vaccine to protect us against the coronavirus, conspiracy theorists are already making the case for why people should not take one, when and if it becomes available. Noted conspiracist Alex Jones, for example, has been warning for months that the vaccination program is part of an alien takeover plot. Another widely circulated conspiracy theory holds that Bill Gates wants to use the vaccine to inject microchips into the population.
There was a time when we could safely ignore people who espoused views such as these. They were relegated to late- night radio programs, low-budget made-forTV “documentaries” about alien abductions and angrily shouting their zany theories in the town square. But the internet changed all that.
As my colleague Jonathan Kay wrote in his 2011 book, Among the Truthers, “Prior to the mid-1990s, conspiracy theorists pursued their investigations in isolated obscurity, typing out manifestos on basement card tables, or amid the nonfiction stacks at their local library. The stigma associated with their craft, in conjunction with the communications limitations predating the World Wide Web, meant that each conspiracist was essentially a unique movement unto himself, his ideas mutating and evolving without social input from others — like an obscure species of land animal confined to a remote island.”
But, “Amid the plethora of newly blooming blogs and discussion fora, the construction of conspiracy theories became a collaborative exercise. … All of the tiny little islands of paranoia suddenly were linked up by virtual causeways.”
Even then, aside from those who used race- based theories to foment hate and violence, most of them could safely be ignored. But now we’re in a situation in which there is a very real possibility that a growing group of conspiracy theorists, fuelled by lies and misinformation spread over social media, could not only worsen the pandemic, but prevent us from stamping out the virus entirely, thus affecting our lives for years to come.