Members Only | August 9, 2021 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

Why is anti-vaccination emerging as a distinctly right-wing phenomenon across the globe?

They were made for each other.

From left clockwise, Kate Shemirani, Marine Le Pen and Giorgia Meloni.
From left clockwise, Kate Shemirani, Marine Le Pen and Giorgia Meloni.

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It is increasingly clear that much resistance to vaccination in the United States is driven by partisanship. Fox News has spent months comparing vaccination efforts to apartheid and forced sterilization. Conservative politicians have been vaccinated in private, if at all. GOP voters have declared that their opposition to vaccination is driven by opposition to liberals. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, hundreds of thousands have participated in anti-vaccination protests throughout Europe. Many far-right politicians in Europe have aligned themselves with these movements. In France, the far-right leader Marine Le Pen has called mandatory vaccination for health workers an “indecent brutality,” while her Italian counterpart, Giorgia Meloni, has described vaccination passports as “totalitarian.”  

This swell of international activity has left some journalists wondering, why is anti-vaccination emerging as a distinctly right-wing phenomenon across the globe?  

The answer is multiply determined, as is typical of socio-political phenomena. There is, nonetheless, a clear explanatory variable for much of this trend: anti-vaccination sentiment is perfectly aligned with extant populist ideology, particularly within the far-right.  

The marriage of far-right populism and the anti-vaccination movement is not new. The French, German and Italian far-right were already turning toward anti-vax rhetoric. The pandemic has strengthened the union.

The meaning of “populism” is contested. It’s often used imprecisely and may denote a variety of things. However, populism is commonly associated with a cluster of concepts. Populism is a superficial or “thin” ideology, meaning it rarely reflects deep thinking about policy. 

Populist movements characteristically embody the pathos of the masses in opposition to an imagined “elite.” The “masses” are, typically, not representative of the public at large, but rather ethnically and culturally homogeneous. Populists are bound together by strong cultural identity and moral superiority and perceive their values as under perceived threat. The populist’s opponents—including politicians, academics, scientists, ethnic and religious minorities—are not only corrupt, but actually evil. They are, quite literally, enemies of the people. 

From this perspective, it is hardly surprising that anti-covid vaccination movements have become associated with far-right populist movements. The two are made for each other like adjacent pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Within the context of public health, especially vaccination, the quintessential populist themes of victimization, moral righteousness and distrust of authorities are all simultaneously afforded opportunity for expression. 

Consider, for example, some recent expressions of anti-vaccination sentiments. 

The Holocaust and related symbols are being coopted by anti-vaxxers. Protesters and politicians alike are decorating themselves in golden stars, symbols of Jewish persecution. Some blithely compare vaccination efforts to the cruel pseudoscience of genocidal torturers, such as the Nazi doctors. A Republican Senate candidate in Oklahoma tweeted a photo of Anthony Fauci donning a Hitler mustache in front of the words, “Faucism: Scare them into Submission; Profit from the Panic.” In the UK, Kate Shemirani, an ex-nurse, gave an anti-vax speech in Trafalgar Square in which she compared the vaccination efforts of the NHS to experimental torture by Nazi Doctors, shouting to a cheering crowd, “Get their names. … At the Nuremberg trials, the doctors and nurses stood trial and they hung.”

In Poland, rather than relying on symbolism of the Holocaust, some anti-vax groups have taken the route of blaming Jews for the pandemic, an old technique that merges bigoted tropes about Jews and infectious disease with those about Jews and global control. Another Polish anti-vax group recently expressed themselves by burning down an inoculation clinic

Notice also how, in the United States, Donald Trump and the Republican Party have been actively weaving the threads of populism throughout their own response to the pandemic, from anti-lockdowns, to anti-masking, to anti-vaccines. And they haven’t stopped at merely casting doubt on science and inspiring rage towards public health. Trump has declared that those who doubt the vaccine do so because they believe the 2020 election was illegitimate, thus explicitly tying anti-science to political loyalty, as well as to distrust in government, and, indeed, in distrust of democracy itself. 

Tellingly, this distrust in science extends beyond sowing doubt about vaccines. For example, when Trump was contradicted by scientists about the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine, he dug deeper in his advocacy for the treatment. Now, effective anti-virals have been developed, yet far rightists continue to tout the benefits of hydroxychloroquine, some even claiming it as part of their personal treatment. Thus, as is the case with anti-vaccination, a dubious treatment has itself become a symbol of populist resistance. Hydroxychloroquine, doubted by scientists, is glorified. Vaccination, validated by scientists, is portrayed as a tool of Nazi-esque torture. 

To be sure, the marriage of populism and the anti-vaccination movement is not a recent development. The French, German and Italian far-right were already turning towards anti-vax rhetoric even prior to the arrival of covid. The pandemic has, however, certainly strengthened the union.  

The marriage also has limits. Anti-vaccination sentiment is a powerful tool for fomenting social discord, and undermining trust in government and institutions of the “elite’.” This is useful for budding authoritarians seeking to gain power or secure more of it. It is less useful for those who are already powerful enough to be held accountable. This logic is supported by the facts.     

For example, leaders in power who rely on populist rhetoric have approached vaccination differently. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro once hypothesized that the Pfizer vaccine would turn people into crocodiles, but has since changed course. Polish President Andrzej Duda was anti-vax in 2020 when that was politically advantageous during an election. Now that the election is over, Duda has expressed doubts about mandates, but has generally toned down any vaccine skepticism. Meanwhile, Viktor Orban, of Hungary, is advocating for limited vaccine mandates. And Rodrigo Duterte, of the Philippines, is threatening unvaccinated people with jail or forced injections of anti-parasitics used to treat animals. 

The US domestic context also demonstrates the complex relationship between the possession of political power and the proclivity to exploit anti-vax sentiments. Federalism affords state-level officials finite plausible deniability. The response of right-wing governors is therefore far from uniform. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey has condemned the unvaccinated. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson has declared he regrets his support of a ban on mask mandates. Meanwhile, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis continues to wage war against private companies who wish to enforce vaccinations. All of these politicians have, to some extent, engaged in anti-government and anti-science populist rhetoric during the pandemic. Some, like Ivey, are adjusting in the face of the delta variant and others, like DeSantis, are recalcitrant. 

What happens next? Some near-term predictions are possible. In terms of public health, strict mandates and negative incentives—such as barring unvaccinated people from large public events—are likely necessary. Those who have made anti-vaccination a crusade of the virtuous against the corrupt are unlikely to be convinced by mere rhetoric. Populism is, again, a thin ideology, motivated by rage over reason. 

It is much harder to say, with any confidence, what the mid-to-long term future holds. The marriage could end. Populists could abandon the anti-vaccination movement the moment it ceases to further their agenda. Alternatively, anti-vaccination could become an enduring feature of our politics, endemic as the virus itself. Perhaps it, like anti-immigration sentiment, will soon enough be a staple of the far-right. This raises serious public health concerns, far beyond covid. 

It’s hard to know how things will develop. The future is uncertain. But the marriage between the far-right and the anti-vaccination movement is no mystery.

Vaccination was always going to be fodder for right-wing populists.

Published in cooperation with Alternet.

Magdi Semrau writes about the politics of language, science and medicine for the Editorial Board. She has researched child language development and published in the New York Academy of Sciences. Born and raised in Alaska, she can be found @magi_jay.

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