Anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers and conspiracists: U.S. has become a melting pot for anti-science ‘viruses’

By Qing Ming (People's Daily Online) 15:18, August 12, 2021

Illustration/People's Daily Online

America seems to have a magic way of counting numbers. At the Olympic arena, it deploys a unique algorithm to place Team USA atop the medal tally; in a COVID-19 resilience list, it manages to crown itself as one of the safest places to be in the world. But by any counting methodology, the country is slipping into a fourth wave of COVID-19 and has gotten stuck in a losing streak during its dreadful battle against the virus.

And this time, it has no more excuses. It can’t blame the latest setbacks on a lack of information, PPE, or vaccines, which the nation has an enviable supply to lavish. It can’t pass the buck onto another political party, as the two back-to-back administrations have made mistakes all alike—although one by inaction and the other through failed attempts. Nor should the unbudging public take the blame, because the nation’s politicians and health officials, together with the media, have continued to spew forth confusing and conflicting messages mixed up with conspiracy theories.

Unlike previous outbreaks, the recent resurgence isn’t simply a repeated defeat or an offset of hard-won gains in fighting the virus, it also signals a much more worrisome trend—a whole-society in disarray amid long-haul public health emergencies and all-level government malfunction in guiding and aiding the public out of the woods in accordance with science. It shows that, even with an abundant stockpile of vaccines and better knowledge about the virus, the US government has still failed to convince its own people to guard against the much more transmissible and deadly Delta variant, meanwhile being unable to contain the spread of the anti-science “viruses” that surround mask-wearing, vaccination and SARS-CoV-2 itself.

A medical worker prepares a dose of COVID-19 vaccine at the Universal Studios Hollywood in Los Angeles, California, the United States, June 18, 2021. (Photo by Zeng Hui/Xinhua)

Us vs. them

The rift between the vaxxers and the unvaccinated pretty much exemplifies and magnifies the long-standing “us vs. them” mentality in American society, and the division over vaccines has come with two facets.

On the one hand, the “haves-and-have-nots dilemma” has been manifested in the drive for vaccine distribution. According to a study published on August 4 by the Kaiser Family Foundation, an NGO, Black and Hispanic people in the country “remain less likely than their White counterparts to have received a vaccine.” In the 40 states surveyed, the percent of White people who have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose (49%) was “roughly 1.3 times higher than the rate for Black people (38%) and 1.1 times higher than the rate for Hispanic people (43%) as of August 2, 2021,” the research has found.

But the root cause of the problem isn’t really the uneven vaccination distribution but the mass resistance to getting the jab in the first place, as a majority of the unvaccinated are anti-vaxxers.

“I don’t want to put something unauthorized by the FDA into my body.” “I’m doing perfectly well without vaccines. No, thanks.” “Those fully vaccinated can still get infected with the Delta variant. Why bother?” … The anti-vaxxers may have a thousand reasons to say no, but they are often categorized into the same basket by media: adamant anti-science Trump supporters.

The classification isn’t entirely misplaced, given that since the very beginning of the pandemic the Trump administration did nothing but promote absurdity and propagate hatred: retailing disinfectant and hydroxychloroquine, slamming the pandemic as a democratic hoax, and calling the SARS-CoV-2 the “China virus”, etc. Even after his falling from grace, his legacy has been carried forward by his allies and loyalists in the country’s red states.

An ongoing research study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation has found that anti-vaccine sentiments are especially popular among Republicans: among unvaccinated adults, 51% are Republicans while 23% are Democrats. The study has also concluded that over half (58%) of those who fall under the category of ‘definitely not getting the vaccine’ are self-identified as Republican or Republican-leaning.

Political leaders in the red states aren’t being helpful either, if they haven’t stood completely in the way of the vaccination drive altogther. Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, is trying his best to make his state “plagued” again. Under his watch, Florida registered a record of 23,903 daily cases on August 6, one day after the governor objected to vaccine mandates at Florida hospitals.

People walk on Lincoln Road in Miami-Dade County, Florida, the United States, Aug. 6, 2021. (Photo by Monica McGivern/Xinhua)

The most dangerous part of this cul-de-sac isn’t the counterproductive efforts made by Republican politicians, but the fact that neither Republicans nor Democrats are willing to budge a bit: the anti-vaxxers are still going to resist and their liberal compatriots will continue to curse. By pointing fingers at each other ceaselessly, they risk reducing the nation into a state of public health “anarchy”, at a time when unity and togetherness are needed the most.

Instead of encouraging the anti-vaxxers to get their shots by addressing their concerns, many of which are a result of misinformation, some of the vaccinated are stepping onto a moral high ground to denounce their counterparts as unscientific, unreasonable and even abhorrent, regardless of whether the unvaccinated, and not only the anti-vaxxers but also marginalized groups, are also a part of the same society and who breathe the same air as them.

That’s why anti-vaccination sentiment has evolved into a whole-of-society issue and a nationwide headache, because no one could possibly stay immune. And the intensified and incessant partisan quarrels over vaccines can never encourage the public to get vaccinated, pretty much like all-day-long fights between parents won’t persuade their child into eating healthy. When anti-vaxxers are unwilling to change their minds and unable to change their tunes, the rest of the divided nation is bound to suffer.

People visit the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., the United States, Aug. 6, 2021. (Xinhua/Liu Jie)

Schrodinger’s masks

To wear or not to wear a mask, that is the question for millions of Americans. And who on earth should the public listen to? —this also sounds like a hypothetical question.

That’s because health experts and politicians—ranging from Dr. Anthony Fauci and Rochelle Walensky, head of the CDC, to Joe Biden, Donald Trump, and even Barack Obama—have kept sending clashing and inconsistent messages to a baffled public that have long been emotionally worn out by the pandemic.

If Anthony Fauci’s comment made on April 3, 2020, that “there’s no reason to be walking around with a mask” was yet another miscalculation and underestimate of the severity of the outbreak, then more than one and a half years into the pandemic, experts and politicians should have learned better by now. They should have understood that wearing a mask is the easiest and one of the most effective ways to protect wearers and others from the virus. Alas, they haven’t.

Despite the simple fact that numerous studies have validated the effectiveness of masks in slowing the spread of the viruses—wearing a cloth mask alone can reduce transmission of exhaled droplets from infected wearers into the air by around 50% to 70%, according to a research study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association—American health experts and politicians alike have failed to send a strong signal that a mask is a must in public spaces.

In misleading and confusing the public on mask-wearing, however, Democrats and Republicans have at least reached a consensus.

On May 13, Joe Biden proudly announced that there was no need for the fully vaccinated to wear a mask. That premature message, which came as the vaccination rate in the U.S. fell short of Biden’s target, hadn’t been aired very long before the CDC decided to reverse course, saying fully vaccinated people should still wear masks indoors. Even as Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC’s director explained that the rare breakthrough infections—cases in which the fully vaccinated still get infected—were behind the U-turn, the public wasn’t suddenly moved to become more vigilant, having already become frustrated and skeptical enough.

Aggravating the CDC’s roller coaster mask guidelines is the persistent contempt for mask mandates in some COVID-stricken states as led by Republican politicians. On August 9, in the wake of record-setting cases in his state, the Florida governor ordered that Florida’s board of education withhold pay from superintendents and school board members who mandate face masks in schools, sending a strong signal that, even with skyrocketing cases and hospitalizations, his state won’t mandate mask-wearing in schools, one of the most vulnerable places for spreading the virus. On the same day, Republican senators Ted Cruz and Kevin Cramer proposed a series of bills aimed at banning mask and vaccine mandates, after Senator Rand Paul, who was suspended from YouTube on August 11 for claiming that masks are ineffective in fighting the COVID-19, introduced legislation to prohibit federal mask mandates on public transportation last month.

US Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) speaks during the largely virtual 2020 Republican National Convention broadcast from Washington, August 25, 2020. 2020. [Photo Provided to China Daily]

Some media outlets, like Fox News, in particular, have also spared no efforts to add fuel to the fire. They don’t seem to report vital issues like mask mandates from the standpoint of a fact-checker or a disseminator of scientific information; instead, they are all out to stoke public fears and anger that caters only to expanding their audience. In Fox News’ coverage on such issues, for instance, the mask mandate is often labeled as a practice of “meddling”, and titles like “Kids’ mask use ‘should not be forced,’ study authors argue”, “School board meeting gets heated as parents demand mask policy be dropped”, and “Betsy DeVos on escalating mask debate: ‘Leave these decisions to parents’”, etc., have kept popping up in the headlines.

Politicians, voters, and the media—they have already formed into a vicious circle, in which politicians vow to nullify mask mandates to play up to their voters; voters applauding the TV hosts who slam health experts for infringing on their “freedoms”, and the media cherry-pick a squad of political figures who chant the mantra of “no more masks”. A review of past and ongoing crises in the U.S. will often lead us to similar toxic circles, e.g., gun violence, immigration, health care, abortion, etc. But on the issue of mask-wearing, the bargaining is too trivial and the cost is too heavy. Red herrings like “masks could hinder kids’ ability to engage with each other” are often used as an excuse to object to school mask mandates, while anti-maskers often purposefully ignore the fact that school children, who are ineligible to get COVID-19 vaccines, might also pass the viruses to their classmates, friends and family members—the “liberty” and “freedom” the anti-maskers are wielding as weapons could result in other people’s confinement to the hospital bed.

If public attitudes mutate too, the public body will have already developed its own resistance to the hard sell of masks and vaccines. Bombarded by three waves of outbreaks, American society should have, at least, thought thrice on their masking and vaccination strategies and concentrated instead on reversing the status quo. Instead, the U.S. has chosen to invest more of its energies into spreading conspiracy theories, such as the idea that the coronavirus was man-made and leaked from a Wuhan lab, in a bid to divert public attention away from the government’s own Waterloo in containing the domestic epidemic.

People walk on a street in New York, the United States, July 20, 2021. (Xinhua/Wang Ying)

Political viruses

Back in May, the Wall Street Journal released a series of “hypothetical” articles rehashing the hackneyed yarn that the SARS-CoV-2 was linked to a Wuhan lab, from which, it claimed, the virus could later “escape”. By citing a weak report held up by unsubstantiated claims and quoting from officials whose personal views pointed to the exact same conspiracy theories, those pieces have effectively blurred the lines between facts and opinions, between truth and misinformation, and between accusations and convictions.

Similar conspiracy-based stories have since resurfaced, as right-wing media outlets like FOX News have somehow become emboldened by their “foresight” in circulating such theories early on. Fox News has criticized CNN and NYT for their previous dismissal of the “lab leak” idea while pressing for Anthony Fauci’s immediate “firing or resignation” due to his about-face on the conspiracy theories and a lack of resolution on the federal mask guidance.

US media outlets, and those like Fox News in particular, should know best what conspiracy theories have brought America. The country is still haunted by the January capitol riot that was incited by Trump’s claim that the election was “stolen”; the former president’s reference to SARS-CoV-2 as the “China Virus” also ignited spiraling and continuing hate crimes targeting the Asian American community…

But sadly, the needed lessons have never been learned. A close review of the media’s conspiracy-based stories in the U.S. will lead us to the unchanging pattern of “fake news masquerading as facts.” All the relevant pieces are based on one unconvincing report and multiple “well-selected” bigoted allegations, and worse still, they are quoting each other as sources.

When baseless allegations meet more baseless allegations, when a flawed report is compounded by another flawed report, it sends a deceptive signal to readers that the theory could or must be plausible. Although the media doesn’t fire bullets, they have pointed their muzzles at the presupposed target and loaded their sugar-coated bullets, only waiting for readers to themselves pull the trigger.

The new low of America’s misinformation campaign happened not on the day when U.S. media decided to rehash the baseless and farcical lab leak conspiracies, not on the day when Senator Rand Paul confronted Dr. Anthony Fauci, suggesting that the National Institutes of Health was funding “gain of function” research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a claim Fauci vigorously denied, but on the day when Joe Biden, the president of the U.S., ordered American intelligence agencies to “redouble” efforts to investigate the origins of COVID-19 in Wuhan.

By doing so, he handed down the death sentence for the last traces of truth and facts regarding the origin of COVID-19. He has allowed American intelligence agencies, which were responsible for concocting the “Weapons of Mass Destruction” hoax in Iraq, to speak for science, stealing the spotlight from scientists, while weaponizing and politicizing a matter best left to rational and scientific inquiry.

It’s not hard to find similarities and a convergence among the anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, and conspiracists in American society—they are the inevitable products of the American melting pot, in which all anti-science noises can buzz about, so loud that they cover up the voices of truth and fact and make the drive to save lives irrelevant. As long as the anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, and conspiracists don’t stop stealing the spotlight and continue their campaign to pump out lies and distractions, the U.S. will continue to remain trapped in an endless loop of coronavirus and political viruses, infecting the whole world all the while. 

Tourists are seen near the White House in Washington, D.C., the United States, July 26, 2021. (Xinhua/Liu Jie)

(Web editor: Meng Bin, Liang Jun)


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