Debunking Anti-Vaccine Memes, Part I

Debunking Anti-Vaccine Memes, Part I September 15, 2021

The Delta variant continues to ravage America, with a death toll now equivalent to a 9/11 every day. But while American conservatives have made the annual commemoration of 9/11 a patriotic shibboleth, they’re actively fighting against masks, vaccines, and everything else that can stop the pandemic in its tracks. They’re the best ally the virus could have.

If you spend much time on sites like Facebook, where this kind of nonsense spreads, well, virally – you might notice that the same handful of slogans, images and memes are repeated over and over by virus-deniers. That’s not a coincidence: according to one study, just twelve people are to blame for 65% of anti-vaccine disinformation on social media. The lies they pump out are taken up by the right-wing echo chamber and repeated endlessly.

No debunking is going to turn back this tide. The conservatives who spread these half-truths and falsehoods do so because they want to believe them, not because they’re sincerely concerned about facts and evidence. Even so, such blatant untruths shouldn’t be allowed to go unanswered. This week and next week, in this two-part post, I’ll list and refute the ones that pop up most often.

#1: Why is the vaccine free when other medical treatments aren’t?

Political cartoons like these pose this question as if it’s a stumper for liberals. The implication is that there’s some sinister reason why the vaccine is being handed out like candy when other kinds of health care are expensive and hard to get:

If you have a right-wing relative who’s sending you these memes, the comeback is: “Because you vote against that.

American liberals and progressives would like nothing better than to make health care accessible for everyone, whether through expanding Medicaid or shoring up the ACA or switching to single-payer. The problem is that the Republican party, comprised of most of the people who spread memes like these, fights tooth and nail against all attempts to do that. They’re still waging war against Obamacare over a decade after its passage.

The reason that the vaccine, specifically, is free is because COVID is such a large and immediate crisis that it can overcome resistance and spur the government into action, whereas political polarization, special-interest lobbying and bureaucratic inertia more often prevent that.

#2: Lockdowns are unconstitutional / Our freedom is threatened!

Anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown campaigners are convinced that America’s founders would be on their side. In fact, George Washington required variolation (an early form of vaccination) for the entire Continental Army. Benjamin Franklin’s son died of smallpox, and Franklin wrote that he “regretted bitterly” that he’d never had a chance to inoculate him against it. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were also strong advocates of inoculation.

Nor were the founders opposed to quarantines or lockdowns to stop outbreaks of disease. On the contrary, in an era before modern medicine when epidemics ran rampant, it was one of the few tools they had. In 1796, Congress passed and President George Washington signed the first federal quarantine law in response to a yellow fever outbreak. A second, more expansive quarantine law was passed in 1799 and signed by President John Adams.

Vaccine mandates are also fully constitutional. Courts have long upheld them for school, for work, or for the general public. This precedent dates back over a hundred years, to the Supreme Court ruling in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, which held that compulsory vaccination to protect public health was a reasonable exercise of state power.

It is, in fact, the government’s job to protect its citizens’ health. That’s not a modern invention, but one of the oldest powers of the state. Laws mandating quarantine go back at least to the Black Death, seven hundred years ago. And, contrary to the assertion that these laws are only meant to apply to the sick and not the healthy, the whole point of a quarantine (or lockdown, or travel ban) is that we don’t know who may be carrying the disease, so we have to isolate everyone for a long enough time to prevent the spread. The word “quarantine” comes from an Italian word meaning “forty“, which is how many days the crews of newly arrived ships had to stay in isolation.

The people spreading these memes have confused their Ayn Rand libertarian fantasies for reality. We live in a society, which means we have moral obligations to each other. Following some simple rules to prevent the spread of a deadly disease is literally the least we can do for our fellow human beings. Right-wingers imagine that “freedom” means never having to do anything they don’t want to do, regardless of the possible consequences. In reality, just as with drunk-driving laws, your freedom stops where it endangers my life, and vice versa.

#3: Science has been wrong before / The vaccines were rolled out too fast

This meme accuses the FDA of prematurely approving dangerous drugs like thalidomide. In fact, thalidomide was never approved in the U.S., despite an aggressive pressure campaign from the manufacturer. This can be credited to a heroic FDA scientist, Frances Oldham Kelsey, who demanded more data showing its safety for pregnant women. (Most of the birth defects caused by thalidomide were in Europe.)

The same is true of other harmful chemicals, like nicotine in cigarettes or lead in gasoline or heroin sold over the counter. All these toxic products were marketed and sold in the absence of regulation and safety checks, and often against the will of public-health experts who tried to warn about the danger.

It’s because of public outcry over these scandals that the FDA and other bodies were given the regulatory muscle to require drug makers to test for efficacy and safety. And the COVID vaccines have passed these tests with flying colors. Tens of millions of people have received the vaccines, and they obviously haven’t dropped dead. It’s only because of this rigorous testing, as well as post-approval monitoring by regulators, that we know about the extremely rare and treatable side effects which do sometimes occur. Of course, no process overseen by humans is infallible, but the anti-vaxers are essentially asking us to pretend the last hundred years of progressive reform never happened.

Another meme in this category holds that the vaccines were created “too quickly” to be trustworthy:

In response, we should ask: What makes you the judge of how long a scientific advance is supposed to take?

There’s no law that says scientific discovery has to take a set amount of time. How long it takes to bring an idea from the drawing board to reality is a function of how much effort is poured into it. Obviously, since COVID became a global pandemic, almost every biologist in the world has been focusing on it. The prevalence of the disease also made it easy to set up drug trials and get the results quickly, whereas a vaccine for a rare or slow-moving disease would inevitably take longer to test.

It’s also to be expected that the pace of progress accelerates over time. Those early vaccines were made through trial and error, which was slow and painstaking work, but it laid the foundation for our understanding of the immune system. Subsequent vaccines benefited from that hard-won knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. It’s because past vaccines took so long to make that this one could be made so quickly!

Finally, the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines didn’t spring out of nowhere. RNA vaccine technology has been in development since the 1990s, and coronaviruses in particular have been studied intensely since the SARS outbreak, almost twenty years ago. When COVID appeared, we had that knowledge base to draw upon. It’s true that we were lucky – the virus might have come from a different family we didn’t know as much about, or the vaccines might not have worked on the first try – but that’s a reason to celebrate our good fortune, not to distrust it. It’s not evidence of a conspiracy that the worst-possible outcome didn’t happen.

#4: Dr. Fauci is bad!

Dr. Anthony Fauci is a physician, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, and one of America’s leading public health experts. He’s served under every president since Ronald Reagan and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the U.S., for his work fighting AIDS. Even at the age of 80, when he’s more than earned the right to retire, he’s still working 18-hour days, including treating COVID patients personally.

Since the pandemic, he’s also become an object of white-hot hatred for conservative anti-vaxers:

Dr. Fauci is an especially ridiculous target for conspiracizing because his role is purely advisory. He had no authority to impose mask mandates or lockdowns, which was done at the state level by governors. Even so, the Fauci-haters compete with each other to issue the shrillest and most over-the-top denunciations (fire him! put him in prison!! execute him!!!)

Why do they hate him with such a passion? Their stated reasons are a wild concoction of fantasy, as in this meme:

There are too many lies in this Gish gallop to debunk them all, but just to point out the biggest whoppers: Moderna was founded in 2010, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was never a German company, and Anthony Fauci has never been its CEO. Bill Gates attended Harvard, not Cornell, and he was never roommates with Fauci.

Hewing slightly closer to reality, other right-wingers insist that there’s something sinister in Fauci’s public e-mails:

But despite straining mightily, the only thing they can find are some messages showing that, in the early days of the pandemic, he – like many scientists – held some beliefs about the virus which were later discovered to be incorrect. This is how the refining process of scientific research is supposed to happen. Wouldn’t it be clearer evidence of a conspiracy if every scientist understood the virus perfectly right at the beginning?

The real reason for the right’s animosity is that their worldview is founded on xenophobia, on dividing the world into Us and Them and inciting fear and hatred of the Other. A deadly virus is too invisible and too impersonal a threat for this playbook. They need a tangible enemy to focus their ire on, and they appear to have settled on Dr. Fauci for no real reason other than that he’s on TV often and he didn’t downplay the pandemic when it was Donald Trump’s political strategy to do so.

#5: Where did the flu go?

This anti-vax meme finds it highly suspicious that the flu and other respiratory viruses were nowhere to be seen in 2020:

The implication is that COVID is just another strain of the flu, and the powers that be are conspiring to cover this up. They’re spreading fear among the populace by telling lies about a “new” disease as part of a strategy of control.

Now, obviously, the flu and COVID are two different diseases. They have distinctly different symptoms, and there are mountains of scientific publications analyzing the two viruses and sequencing their genomes. But even if you ignore all that, the answer is transparently obvious: the near-disappearance of the flu is proof that everything we did to fight COVID worked!

The influenza virus is less contagious than SARS-CoV-2. Lockdowns, masks, social distancing, handwashing and other mitigation measures slowed the spread of COVID over the past year, but they annihilated the flu.

#6: God decides when we die, not doctors

These fatalistic memes, usually posted by evangelical Christians, argue that there’s no point in taking precautions against the pandemic because God is omnipotent. He decides when each person dies, and when your time is up, no mask or vaccine will save you:

But no one lives according to this principle. If you believe God has predestined your death and you’re invincible until then, why take any precautions against anything? Why not play Russian roulette for fun, or quaff a glass of poison with breakfast, or fling yourself off every cliff you pass? (If it’s not your time, won’t angels appear to bear you up?)

Most importantly, if you truly believe that you can’t delay your appointed death date by any means whatsoever: Why do you go to the hospital when you’re sick with COVID?

Even if God exists, a religious person can still believe that he created the universe with fixed natural laws which humanity can learn. They can also believe that if someone foolishly ignores those laws, God won’t step in to save them from the consequences of their bad choice. That’s just another way of stating the principle of free will which Christians say they value so much.

Anyone who rejects this would have to discard, not just all the scientific advances of the past several hundred years, but the very principle of cause and effect. They’d have to turn back the clock to a pre-Enlightenment mindset where the world was impenetrably mysterious and governed by the whims of supernatural entities who had to be appeased. As long as humanity believed this, we wallowed in ignorance, suffered and died. Anti-vaxers seem to be doing their utmost to bring those days back.

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