Anti-vaccine protests and blame-shifting COVID-19 ethical responsibility in Canada

When I saw images of anti-vaccine protesters in front of hospitals, I was enraged. It is callous and selfish to protest against the healthcare workers who cared for our communities throughout the pandemic.

Seeing images of anti-vaccine protesters wearing the Star of David in reference to their supposed persecution was even more shocking again.

These incidents were so jarring that I had to stop and ask, what is going through their heads that they think this is appropriate?

As someone who researches protest movements, I know that dissent is often understood in radically different ways by the general public than by protesters themselves. The difference can be so great that those inside a dissident worldview and those outside see the same thing in opposite ways.

Take, for example, the case of the Branch Davidians and the Waco siege. The Davidians believed in an apocalyptic creed, and so when federal agents showed up at their compound, they perceived it not as a government raid to seize illegal firearms but as signalling the first stage of the end of days, as David Koresh had prophesied. Much of the scholarship on the Waco siege argues that either side’s inability to comprehend the opposing worldview caused so many unnecessary deaths.

To be clear, I am not saying the anti-vaccine protesters are the same as the Davidians. I’m also not saying that I sympathize with their cause. What I am saying is that the worldview of the anti-vax protests is radically different than the status quo, and an inability to understand that sentiment on its own terms gets in the way of doing anything about it.

Creating the scapegoat

At this point, I’d like to direct interested readers to a few resources on understanding anti-vaccine protests and the history of this movement. Here is a link to an article in the Guardian that I highly recommend. Here is a link to an article in the New York Times that explores the recent history of the movement in the United States, which heavily influences the movement here in Canada. I also recommend the article “History of anti-vaccination movements” on the College of Physicians of Philadelphia website.

Many other articles describe what’s going on inside the anti-vaccine worldview and psychology. What I’m interested in here is not so much trying to understand anti-vaxxers but understanding the failure on the part of the mainstream to authentically engage their worldview, especially since so much research exists on the subject.

For example, media representations of anti-vaccine protests make little attempt to understand or highlight legitimate concerns in the movement. Most news outlets pride themselves on some notion of journalistic objectivity, but the tone of mockery and derision in most articles about the anti-vaccine protests is clear. It is a similar sort of caricaturing that happens with almost any protest movement.

I am sure that many share my own shocked reaction and my immediate gut feeling of outrage at seeing the hospital protests. I have also heard a wide range of rhetoric about how anti-vaxxers should be treated, including the openly expressed sentiment that they should be denied healthcare and left to die. Not only is there no attempt to understand the anti-vax sentiment, but the vitriol directed toward anti-vaxxers is glaring when viewed dispassionately.

In fact, what it looks like is classic scapegoating. The definition of scapegoating is when the guilt of a community is placed upon some object or individuals and then cast out to absolve sins. Scapegoating is often described as an irrational act because the object, group, or individual that takes the blame isn’t actually at fault. However, scapegoating is also described as a rational act because it allows a community to continue functioning through collective absolution. The scapegoat takes the blame for some sins that the community cannot or will not reconcile.

The function of COVID-19 blame-shifting

Before vaccines were readily available, some 25,000 people died from COVID in Canada. Thousands of vulnerable older adults died in nursing homes. Racialized communities bore a disproportionate share of death and suffering. People experiencing homelessness did not receive the support or care they needed to stay healthy and survive.

At the federal and provincial levels, governments failed to make good decisions concerning public health, and failed to learn lessons and made the same mistakes repeatedly. Canada engaged in vaccine nationalism, among the worst actors of any developed countries, while in the public sphere, a discussion took place about whether the country was at “the front of the line.”

And unfortunately, it has to be said that lots of individuals didn’t do their part. I’m not going into detail on this here, other than to say that while tens of thousands of people died, many people insisted on their holidays and creature comforts. (For interested readers, I have previously tried to qualify Canadian COVID-19 shortcomings in a couple of different articles here and here.)

The point is, ugly things happened during the pandemic in Canada. Most of this ugliness is not something people want to talk about and is actually something people want to cover over and forget.

When much of the country got vaccinated, it provided an opportunity to start fresh. It was a chance to purge the guilt from our collective psyche. All the bad behaviour, unnecessary suffering, and death are magically erased for anyone who gets a syringe of vaccine injected in their arm. Those who would not get vaccinated, of course, then become responsible for all the ugliness that came before.

It is irrational and rational at the same time. Irrational, in the sense that anti-vaccine protesters are not responsible for the ugliness that played out in this country during the first year-and-a-half of the pandemic. Rational, in the sense that the caricature of the anti-vax protester is a convenient vessel for the deep-seated guilt so many are keen to forget. Like any scapegoat, all the sins are placed upon them, and they are cast out of the community so that everyone else can move on.

Canada’s COVID reckoning

To be clear, once again, none of this is meant to justify protests in front of hospitals by anti-vaccine protesters or to generate any sympathy for their cause. I disagree with them, and I feel that if they want to claim their right not to get vaccinated, they also need to accept their responsibility not to endanger the rest of the community.

But the rest of the community also needs to accept its responsibility. Getting vaccinated does not absolve people of their responsibility for what happened. And the country will need to come to a serious reckoning if we ever hope to move past this collective shame. That reckoning can’t happen when the collective impulse is to scapegoat anti-vaxxers.

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