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Debunking Anti-Vaccine Memes, Part II

Debunking Anti-Vaccine Memes, Part II September 22, 2021

Following from last week’s post, here are some more anti-vax falsehoods that are spreading on social media, along with their refutations:

#7: The media / the government want to scare you!

Memes falling into this category assert that the threat of COVID is exaggerated (or completely fictitious) and the powers that be are spreading fear so that we’ll go along with whatever sinister plans they’re cooking up. For instance, here’s several which claim that COVID is just like other past crises that didn’t amount to anything:

The obvious fallacy here is that many of these warnings weren’t overblown! The West African Ebola outbreak of 2014 killed over 10,000 people, and could have spread much farther. It’s only because of the swift and competent response by President Obama that the virus didn’t gain a foothold in the U.S. The same is true of other dangerous diseases, like SARS and MERS, which were contained and stamped out by international intervention.

Many of these threats ended up fizzling out because people saw the danger and acted on it, preventing a small problem from becoming a large crisis. That doesn’t mean there was never a threat. It means the warnings served their purpose!

For whatever reason – be it China’s secretiveness, Trump’s incompetence, or just the fact that this virus is more contagious – that didn’t happen this time. We weren’t able to stop COVID from becoming a pandemic. But it’s sheer idiocy to believe that because we averted past threats, this one must not be dangerous either. Do the conspiracy theorists not realize that almost 5 million people have already died? It takes an impressive amount of willful blindness to refuse to see that countries all over the world have had overflowing hospitals and mass graves.

Another assertion made by these anti-vax memes is that the Amish, because they don’t have TV, didn’t hear about the pandemic and were therefore unaffected by it:

This is tragically, dangerously false. In fact, Amish communities have suffered some of the worst death rates, because they shun science and modernity and are almost entirely unvaccinated. (The Amish have been ground zero for previous outbreaks, like measles, for the same reason.)

Now, it’s true that traditional and social media have a tendency to exaggerate the scariness of every new threat (because fear gets ratings and clicks). But the answer isn’t to hurtle to the opposite extreme and assume that nothing you hear warnings about is worthy of concern. Blind disbelief is no more praiseworthy than blind belief.

Last but not least are the memes which use Christian arguments to counsel people to resist fear, like this one:

Has there ever been a worldview more fearful than the American religious right? Their entire worldview is built on stoking the flames of fear and prejudice against an endless parade of scary straw men: Black people (usually disguised as “inner-city thugs”), socialists, Democrats, atheists, feminists, LGBTQ people, Muslims, Hispanic immigrants, China… the list goes on and on. Right-wing media feeds its audience a constant stream of panic and outrage porn over these outsiders who are supposedly coming to destroy their way of life and tear down everything that Christian Americans hold dear. It’s bitterly ironic that the one thing they refuse to take any precautions against is the first genuine danger America has faced in decades!

#8: The vaccine is harmful / dangerous / experimental

Memes in this category assert that the vaccine hasn’t been tested enough (often combined with last week’s assertion that it was developed “too fast”), and people who get it will suffer side effects years down the line. Some go farther and assert that the vaccine is already causing harm:

That chart at the end is possibly the most dishonest of all these anti-vax memes, and that’s a hard prize to win. It shows a spike in deaths beginning in 2020, which it blames on the COVID vaccine. It’s meant to look dramatic and scary – except, obviously, the vaccine didn’t exist before 2020!

Even that “10,991 deaths” figure is extremely suspect. It’s based on VAERS, a government database that’s used to track side effects of vaccines. The issue is that VAERS is based entirely on self-reporting. Any bad thing that happened to a person after they got the vaccine can be reported, even if it’s unrelated. Since the first wave of people who got the shot were the elderly and those in poor health, it’s inevitable that some of them will have died since then. That doesn’t mean the vaccine caused them to die! This is a pure example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.

Although it’s true the COVID vaccine has caused side effects in a tiny number of people, we only know about that because of surveillance by government regulators. This is a powerful point in favor of trustworthiness that anti-vaxers can’t answer. If the evil conspiracy wanted to push everyone into getting the shot, why would they tell people about side effects? Wouldn’t the official line be that the vaccine is 100% safe?

There’s no way to prove that the vaccines won’t have some other side effect, some indeterminate time in the future (even though no vaccine has ever had side effects that arose more than two months or so after the shot). But even if you think the vaccine is risky, the followup question that never gets asked is: compared to what?

The people spreading these memes seem not to be aware that a deadly, contagious pandemic called COVID-19 is sweeping the world, and millions of people have already died from it! The virus can kill in multiple terrible ways, from lung scarring to blood clots. Even those who recover may suffer long-term complications for months or years afterward.

There are no choices in life that are completely free of risk, but a rational person can judge the relative possibility of different dangers and judge wisely among them. Disregarding the towering tidal wave of risk from COVID, and focusing myopically on the tiny chance of vaccine side effects, is a sure sign of a person who’s made up their mind before considering the facts.

#9: Masks / vaccines don’t work

A common tactic of anti-vaxers is to argue that there’s no point taking any precautions because they’re useless anyway, as with these anti-mask memes:

Contradicting these claims, there’s solid evidence that masks work. In one study from 2020, two masked hairdressers who later tested positive for COVID saw 139 clients without infecting any of them.

More recently, a controlled trial of mask-wearing in Bangladesh reduced spread by about 10% – which doesn’t sound like much, but on a global scale, a 10% reduction would mean hundreds of thousands of lives saved. Also, only 42% of people in the study wore masks consistently, and it’s reasonable to believe the effect would have been even larger with more compliance.

The point anti-maskers are missing is that, although a mask protects its wearer to an extent, the main reason for wearing one is to protect others. When a sick person talks, coughs or sneezes, tiny droplets of virus-laden saliva fly from their mouth. A mask stops these droplets from landing on other people’s faces, carrying their viral cargo with them. (There’s also evidence that COVID can spread through free-floating aerosols, against which a mask is less protective – but it’s still valuable to block transmission as best as we can.)

Moving on to the next claim, anti-vaxers say the shot is worthless, since vaccinated people can still get breakthrough cases of COVID and even die from it:

The anti-vaxers have gone to great lengths to confuse themselves about this simple point: the clinical trials found that both the Pfizer and Moderna were 95% effective, not 100%. They offer very strong protection, but not perfect protection.

This makes sense, since vaccines aren’t a magical forcefield that prevents the coronavirus from entering your body. What the vaccine does is teach the immune system how to fight the virus, so if a person does get infected, their immune system can launch a rapid counterattack and wipe it out before it makes them too sick. Usually when this happens, a vaccinated person will never feel sick, or at worst they’ll have only minor symptoms.

But there will always be those whose immune systems don’t respond to the vaccine as we’d hope. Most serious breakthrough cases happen in people who are in bad health or who are immunosuppressed for another reason (like chemotherapy or organ transplants). That’s why the vaccine greatly lowers the risk of hospitalization and death, but doesn’t eliminate it entirely.

Real-world experience bears this out. A sweeping study in New York State found that between January and September 2021, there were 1.3 million COVID cases, of which only 58,000 were in vaccinated people – in other words, 95% efficacy, just as the original clinical trials found. Over the same period, 102,000 people were hospitalized for COVID, only 4,500 of them vaccinated, which shows the same 95% reduction.

In addition, research suggests that when vaccinated people do get breakthrough cases, they clear the virus faster, meaning they’re contagious for less time. This, again, is proof of why vaccines are essential to control the spread.

Nothing in this world is certain, but that isn’t a reason not to take reasonable precautions. It’s the mark of an immature and lazy thinker to demand a black-and-white answer to every question. Scoffing at the vaccine because it doesn’t confer absolute protection is like asking, “Why should we give soldiers and police body armor if it doesn’t stop 100% of bullet injuries?”

And, of course, no safety measure works if people aren’t willing to abide by it. For most anti-vaxers, the answer is: “Masks didn’t work because you didn’t wear them. Lockdowns didn’t work because you didn’t go along with them. The vaccine doesn’t work because you won’t get it.

#10: COVID isn’t that bad

Following on from #7, this claim asserts that COVID is no big deal, so we shouldn’t worry about it. Those who spread these memes often insist that COVID has a “99% survival rate”, or boast that they don’t need the shot because “I have an immune system!”

This is sheer biological ignorance. Yes, you have an immune system, and that’s why we get vaccinated. The purpose of a vaccine is to train your immune system how to fight a pathogen without you having to get sick! Vaccines boost your immune system in a way that quacks and snake-oil hawkers only wish they could.

The whole reason we have vaccines is that our immune systems don’t always protect us. The case fatality rate, or CFR, measures how many people who test positive later die. As of September 2021, the U.S. has recorded 33 million COVID cases and about 700,000 deaths, which yields a fatality rate of about 2%. But that’s an overestimate, since it doesn’t count people who never feel sick enough to get a test. The true number is the infection fatality rate, or IFR, which is harder to quantify, but many estimates are in the neighborhood of 1%.

1% sounds like a small number, but compared to most risks we encounter on a routine basis, it’s terrifyingly high. An analogy may help put this into perspective. The FAA monitors about 45,000 daily flights in the U.S. Now, imagine that 450 flights were crashing out of the sky every single day, killing everyone aboard. That’s “only” a 1% failure rate – but how safe would you feel getting on an airplane?

Also, 1% is the average fatality rate across the entire population. It doesn’t mean that any individual person who contracts COVID has a 1% chance of dying. For those who are older, or who have comorbidities like asthma, diabetes, obesity or a smoking habit, it can be significantly higher – and many unvaccinated, Trump-loving red areas have high rates of these societal ills.

That 1% number also assumes the availability of advanced medical care, like steroids and antibodies and ventilators, to support the very ill and give them a better chance to recover. But that won’t be the case if hospitals are so overwhelmed with COVID patients that they’re forced to turn people away at the door, which is what happens when most people refuse vaccination. For example, the entire state of Idaho has moved to crisis care standards, which means hospitals will have to ration beds based on who doctors judge to have the best chance of survival.

Last but not least, the “99% survival rate” meme doesn’t reflect that there are options besides death or full recovery. Millions of people who get COVID and live report chronic, sometimes disabling symptoms that linger indefinitely. Some survivors are tied to oxygen tanks because of damaged lungs, or need lung transplants that require a strong drug regimen for the rest of their lives. Others suffer strokes or muscle atrophy that require extensive rehabilitation to learn to walk again. Others report their smell and taste are altered in a way that makes food smell like rotting meat. Still others report crushing fatigue, brain fog, body aches and insomnia. Anti-vaxers who don’t know or care about these aftereffects are playing Russian roulette with their own health.

#11: “My body, my choice” / HIPPA

Borrowing a page from pro-choice rhetoric, anti-vaxers assert that bodily autonomy gives them an absolute right to refuse the shot:

First of all, the glaring hypocrisy is that many people spreading these memes are anti-choicers who don’t believe pregnant people should have bodily autonomy. If you use this argument but you’re against access to abortion and birth control, then you don’t actually believe that bodily autonomy is a right. Those who’ve sought to tear away reproductive choice from women for decades have absolutely no grounds for complaint about mandatory vaccination.

However, even if conservatives were consistent in their principles, there’s a big, obvious reason why these cases aren’t comparable: Pregnancy isn’t contagious!

It’s often said that my right to swing my fist ends where it meets your face. We recognize that an individual’s right to bodily autonomy ends where their choices endanger others, which is why we outlaw drunk driving. A person infected with COVID, exhaling viral particles everywhere they go, is more like a drunk driver than a pregnant woman. That’s the same reason we require many other vaccines to attend school, travel or join the military.

It’s especially horrifying that there are anti-vax nurses making this argument. We know that COVID can spread asymptomatically, so even those medical workers who “have an immune system” and never fall ill themselves might still be reservoirs of disease inadvertently infecting their vulnerable patients. Anyone who doesn’t understand this has no business working in the medical field.

Now, as a progressive, I do believe in bodily autonomy. For that reason, I actually don’t support “mandatory” vaccination in the sense conservatives fearmonger about: I don’t think anyone should be held down and forcibly injected against their will. But I think that people who refuse the vaccine can and should be barred from schools, workplaces, airplanes and other accommodations. That’s the most reasonable compromise that preserves an individual’s sovereignty over their own person, but prevents those who make poor choices from posing a danger to others.

Some anti-vaxers also claim, absurdly, that it violates the law to ask them if they’re vaccinated:

The law they refer to, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or HIPAA, is written to prevent medical staff from disclosing the private health details of their patients. It doesn’t apply to anyone else, and doesn’t make it a crime for a school or business to ask someone for vaccination status or bar them from the premises if they refuse.

#12: Close the border

This is the definition of a bad-faith argument:

These memes prove nothing except the xenophobic one-reason worldview of those who promote them. The original version of SARS-CoV-2 came from China, and the now-dominant Delta variant originated in India. Closing the U.S. border with Mexico would have done nothing to stop either one. But it’s a constant demand of racists who just want to keep brown people out, regardless of the issue at hand.

As further proof of bad faith, the people who make this argument don’t even act as if they believe it themselves. They say the Biden administration has thrown the doors open to COVID-positive immigrants… but they refuse to get the vaccine, wear masks, or do anything else to protect themselves from the virus that these scary brown people are supposedly bringing!

#13 (Bonus): The vaccine is the mark of the beast

This anti-vax meme, specific to evangelical Christians, holds that the vaccine is the “mark of the beast” predicted by Revelation. It calls upon believers to refuse it at all costs to save their souls:

However, even taking the Bible as true for the sake of argument, this is clearly false. According to Revelation 13, the Mark of the Beast has two distinguishing characteristics: everyone has to get it on their forehead or their right hand, and people who don’t have it will be forbidden to buy or to sell anything.

Neither of these traits apply to the COVID vaccine. I don’t know where these Christian anti-vaxers think the shot goes, but when I got my COVID vaccine, it was in my upper arm. The vaccine passport also doesn’t qualify, since it’s not a tattoo or microchip implanted in the body, but a smartphone app. (Notice how the cartoonist in the first picture took it upon himself to “correct” this inconvenient problem.)

Also, no one who refuses the vaccine is being forbidden to buy or sell. Have they not heard of online grocery ordering?

There’s just one more thing I’ll say about this: if white evangelical Christians are dying in huge numbers because they refuse the vaccine, while the rest of us who trust science remain alive and healthy… that’s the strangest interpretation of the Rapture I’ve ever heard of.


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