What the end of COVID health emergencies means for anti-vaxxers: meltdown

It’s one thing to know intellectually that anti-vaccination fanatics are people completely unmoored from reality, but it’s another thing to be bombarded with their delusions in a highly personal manner.

“Lucky” for me, such an opportunity was recently inflicted on me — where else? — on Twitter. For no discernible reason, a couple of weeks ago my replies started to fill up with “this u?”-style taunts. Traditionally, “this u?” receipts are about digging up some prior public statement that the target is expected to feel shame about. For instance, if a right-winger gets violently ill with COVID-19, they run the risk of pro-vaccine people hitting them with “this u?” reminders of the times they dismissed the disease as a hoax. 

But what these folks kept tweeting at me, clearly believing I’d feel ashamed, was nothing embarrassing at all: an opinion column I wrote in August 2021 headlined, “It’s OK to blame the unvaccinated — they are robbing the rest of us of our freedoms.” None of my hecklers could explain why, exactly, I should feel bad about this. A couple of medical details are out of date, but overall, it remains a strong argument. It didn’t take long to suss out, however, that the people tweeting vitriol at me were anti-vaxxers. Worse, they’re people who are so caught up in their bubble of disinformation that they have convinced themselves it is self-evident that being pro-vaccine in 2021 would cause a person great remorse in 2023. 

I had a front row seat to the ongoing meltdown of a group of people who built their entire identity around the pandemic.

It’s never fun being dogpiled on Twitter, but this was one of the more intriguing versions of the experience.

Want more Amanda Marcotte on politics? Subscribe to her newsletter Standing Room Only.

There was a fascinating pathos to these people — due to their conviction that their anti-vaccine views have been vindicated — but also in their desperation. They had such a longing for relevance that they resorted to claiming to be victimized by a two-year-old headline. (Analytic data showed that few bothered to actually read the essay.) For the of couple days that I was being bombarded by tweets, I had a front row seat to the escalating meltdown of a group of people who built their entire identity around the pandemic. Without the culture war around COVID-19 to give their lives meaning, they are losing their already shaky grips on reality. 

It does help to explain why Republican politicians still obsess about COVID-19.

In their pre-primary slapfight, Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have grown consumed with an argument over who downplayed the virus more, with DeSantis even going so far as to prop up a fake “investigation” of the vaccines. Meanwhile, the newly empowered Speaker Kevin McCarthy says House Republicans plan more fake “investigations” of the pandemic response, led by prominent conspiracy theorists like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who regularly pushes anti-vaccine lies

Relitigating the COVID-19 culture wars seems like an odd choice, politically, since this is all yesterday’s news to most of the country. Sure, there is a debate over whether it’s still a “pandemic” in some scientific sense, but in a socio-cultural sense, the emergency is over. Mask mandates and social distancing are gone and unlikely to come back, and fears of another winter onslaught have largely not manifested. The White House is winding down the pandemic emergency declaration. For most people, life is relatively normal again. In politics, it’s usually considered unwise to waste energy fighting past battles.

It all makes sense, however, when one realizes that a huge chunk of the GOP base — the kind of people who donate to campaigns and vote in primaries — have constructed their entire identities around COVID-19 denialism.

For a solid two years, the pandemic was the most important story in the country, and for many on the right, denying medical science became an obsession. Led by Trump’s glib dismissals of the virus’ dangers as a “hoax,” conservatives erected an entire mythology about how they were underdog heroes for resisting public health measures. They threw tantrums over the lockdowns. They had fits over masks. They refused to get vaccinated. Resisting COVID-19 precautions became, for many of them, central to who they are. And once something becomes central to your identity, it is hard to let go. Ask anyone who has left a church or a profession or even just a beloved hobby. Without “Christian” or “accountant” or “D&D enthusiast” as a rock to anchor a sense of self, a person can often feel adrift. For those who made being “anti-vaxxer” a linchpin in how they view themselves, the fact that few people care anymore must be unmooring. 

Want more Amanda Marcotte on politics? Subscribe to her newsletter Standing Room Only.

It’s made worse by the fact that conservatives always need some B.S. story about how they’re the “real” victims to justify adhering to a political ideology that is about oppressing others. That’s why right-wing media is a steady stream of lies about how white people are the “real” victims of racism, that feminism has gone “too far,” or that LGBTQ rights are somehow a threat to conservative families. Anti-vaccination ideology suits this desire on the right to play the victim, giving them the chance to pretend to be persecuted by vaccine mandates. 

For those who made being “anti-vaxxer” a linchpin in how they view themselves, the fact that few people care anymore must be unmooring. 

Alas, the phony cries of oppression, coupled with the GOP dominance of federal courts, were a little too successful. Vaccine mandates are all but gone. For the Republican seeking opportunities for self-pity, “prejudice” against the unvaccinated is non-existent. It’s hard to be a victim of bigotry when no one cares enough to discriminate against you. That’s why the efforts to reignite the Covid culture wars are getting increasingly baroque. Conservatives have tried to grab at anything in a feeble attempt to get people arguing about the pandemic again. Unsurprisingly, these efforts have been both maximally tasteless, mainly coming in the form of exploiting the health problems of strangers by blaming it on the vaccine.

A rush of right-wing media personalities, including popular Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, tried to blame the vaccine for Damar Hamlin of the Buffalo Bills having a heart attack. Perhaps even more troubling, the obituary for anyone under 80 seems like it’s fair game to right-wing nuts who act like strokes, aneurysms and accidents never happened before the Covid vaccine. In a particularly grim bit of grifting, Silk of the Trumpist duo “Diamond and Silk” went so far as to insinuate that Diamond’s recent death was caused by the vaccine. (The death certificate lists the cause as heart disease.) 

Watching conservatives try to keep a zombie culture war alive would be funny if there weren’t real-world consequences. But now that being anti-vaccine is one of the stations of the Republican cross, there are serious public health implications. The rates of people getting COVID-19 boosters, for instance, have been declining, leading to otherwise preventable deaths. No doubt that a lot of the reasons are procrastination and pandemic fatigue, but there’s also reason to believe that a lot of people, not just right-wingers, are justifying skipping the shot because they saw some “died suddenly” anti-vaxx meme on Facebook. To make things worse, the anti-vaccine ideology is starting to expand beyond Covid. Ohio is currently enduring a horrible measles outbreak among children, due to freshly radicalized anti-vaxxers not getting the jab for their kids. 

Ultimately, I’m fascinated by what it tells us about politics and identity, to see so many right-wingers clinging to the anti-vaccine hysteria long after most Americans have moved on from the pandemic. Escalating Republican fanaticism and social media-fueled culture wars mean that many dumb ideas that would have once been lightly held on the right are instead being incorporated into their very self of self. Once an idea stops being about what a person thinks and becomes part of who they are, it is exponentially harder for them to have a sense of rationality or proportion about it. In that sense, being anti-vaccine is no longer just a passing notion, but has morphed into something closer to a religion. 


Leave a Reply

Skip to toolbar