Anti-vaxxer extremists are growing in numbers during the pandemic – we shouldn’t ignore that

·4-min read
A flu vaccination shot is administered at a pharmacy (EPA)
A flu vaccination shot is administered at a pharmacy (EPA)

It might be tempting to see anti-lockdown, anti-5G, anti-mask and anti-vaxx demonstrations, like the one that took place last weekend in London, as little more than bluster from the fringes.

However, this would be misguided. Anti-vaxxers have long campaigned against the widespread use of vaccines, alleging them to be dangerous, destructive and damaging to childrens’ health, including allegations of causing children to be born autistic. Yet in the context of Covid-19, anti-vaxx content has gone well beyond skepticism and questioning the scientific basis of vaccines to straying into outright conspiracy theories and denial.

Furthermore, around the world, from Miami to Melbourne, extremist groups from across the spectrum are weaponising public concern about the pandemic to undermine trust in governments and to erode confidence in their efforts to save lives and livelihoods.

Recent protests such as those in Berlin saw strange bedfellows come together. White supremacists and anti-capitalists protested government lockdown measures side-by-side, with other extremists and conspiracy theorists.

Ever the opportunists, extremists are exploiting global anti-vaxx sentiment and supplementing it with a dose of xenophobia, racism, antisemitism and hate. Irrespective of ideology, extremists of all stripes have engaged in opposing and attacking vaccination and immunisation efforts.

Yet it’s important to understand that extremists’ opposition to vaccines is not born out of a fundamental aversion to healthcare or treating illnesses, but rather a suspicion of those responsible for administering them, as they consider them to have sinister motivations and insincere objectives.

We have seen this before, as extremists have built theories aimed at stoking suspicion and fear of governments and other actors engaged in trying to address the world’s biggest health challenges – from targeting polio vaccine workers in Pakistan to plastering Nazi flags on telecommunications masts in Australia. Anti-vaxx sentiment is far from a new tool for extremists to exploit, but during the Covid-19 period this has been exacerbated.

In the Covid-19 era, these theories have taken a range of forms, from the outlandish to the outright confusing, with extremist narratives containing conspiracy theories covering everything from the origins of the virus and its transmission to potential cures. In this context, national governments, multilateral bodies, and philanthropists are all fair game.

From promoting anti-establishment and anti-Western rhetoric to blaming globalisation and immigration for the spread of the virus, extremists from all quarters have sought to capitalise on this catastrophe by seeking to delegitimise any semblance of global governance in this time of crisis, which stands in stark contrast to their intolerant, exclusivist aims.

At their most extreme and unbelievable, some groups – particularly on the far right – frame large investments in vaccine development as part of a grand, sinister plot by global "Zionist" elites to depopulate the planet and diminish the white race through mass-sterilisation. This bears striking resemblance to how in the past some Islamist extremists have accused vaccine programmes of being fronts for a global conspiracy to control Muslim population numbers, while portraying vaccine workers as extensions of Western security agencies.

While viable coronavirus vaccines may be some way away, governments are already preparing for mass-vaccinations to get society functioning again and for a semblance of normality to return. The process of ensuring it is rolled out effectively will require public trust in the institutions, which have developed vaccines and will deliver mass-vaccination.

As anti-vaxx sentiment emerges from the fringes and enters the mainstream, coming out from the dark corners of the internet and on to our streets, the extremists who weaponise it create a clear threat to trust. Governments and the wider public should not dismiss the potential for extremists to put the lives and livelihoods of billions around the world at risk by spreading baseless conspiratorial angst at a time of global crisis.

Cristina Ariza and Mubaraz Ahmed are analysts at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

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