The resistance to vaccines and masks: Decades of anti-government propaganda take their toll

The resistance to vaccines and masks: Decades of anti-government propaganda take their toll

Image: Adobe Stock

“I just don’t trust the government.”

That’s at the heart of the explanation provided by millions of Americans these days who refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19, or even to wear masks.

While these doubters and deniers advance all manner of more specific rationales –

  • that the vaccines and masks are part of a monstrous conspiracy to control everyone’s lives
  • that vaccines will produce all manner of negative health effects so serious that it’s worth contracting and spreading the virus in order to avoid them
  • that the so-called pandemic is all a hoax

– the common central premise is that several key government institutions and the people who run them (not to mention several titans of industry) are either utterly incompetent, liars, or both.

It is a remarkable and deeply troubling state of affairs. While skepticism and distrust for high officials is certainly nothing new and, indeed, sometimes warranted, for it to hold sway with respect to such a massive an unprecedented global crisis is to take a giant new leap into a yawning abyss.

If the United States government cannot be trusted when it comes to such a fundamental matter of life and death as the efficacy of vaccination in combating a worldwide pandemic – something on which the overwhelming majority of scientists, public health experts (and even Joe Biden and Donald Trump) are in agreement – where does that leave us?

Of course, one striking incongruity of this widespread mistrust is its profoundly selective – some might even say, wildly inconsistent – nature. Most of the same people loudly and proudly proclaiming their opposition to COVID-19 vaccination and eschewing masks have no problem placing great faith in the leaders and actions of other branches of government that deal in life and death matters – be it the U.S. military, law enforcement agencies, firefighters and other emergency responders, storm predictors, or the agencies that construct and maintain roads, bridges, and other vital components of public infrastructure.

Why the scientists and other experts spearheading the pandemic response deserve any less trust or respect than the professionals leading those favored branches of government (or, for that matter, the health officials who urge us to get DPT and polio shots) never seems to find its way into the conversation.

Of course, the most frequently advanced explanation for this disastrous and deadly state of affairs – the power of social media – is certainly a huge part of the problem. In today’s world in which digital technology provides a means for countless self-proclaimed “experts” to bypass the accepted systems of peer review and “publish” alarmist, but superficially persuasive “research,” a lot of gullible people will fall prey.

Anyone who doubts this need only consult a recent national poll which showed that more than one in seven Americans buy into the utterly insane QAnon conspiracy theory that our national political leadership is dominated by a clique of Satan-worshiping pedophiles.

That said, there’s clearly more to the deadly and frequently suicidal resistance to vaccines and masking than mere social media lies. The confused souls of the Flat Earth Society propound nonsense on the internet too, but their efforts have yet to convince many people to join in a mostly harmless cause – much less tens of millions to join a truly dangerous one.

No, as with the QAnon insanity and Donald Trump’s lies about a stolen 2020 election, it took more than a bevy of inaccurate social media posts for vaccine and mask resistance to take hold; it also took decades of anti-government propaganda from conservative and “libertarian” politicians, clerics, “think tanks,” and media outlets to till the soil in which misinformation and distrust would sprout and take hold.

In the 1980’s, when Ronald Reagan made light of the idea of anyone from the government ever saying, “I’m here to help,” he was telling a cheeky joke to make a point about the need to reform bureaucracy. Today, however, several decades and thousands of ever-more provocative and skillfully packaged reports, sermons, and political speeches later, Reagan’s one-liner has, for many, metastasized into something akin to a faith.

Having grown up amidst a relentless drumbeat of increasingly scurrilous claims designed to undermine the legitimacy of disfavored branches of government – especially the branches that ask us to engage as active citizens rather than as mere passive consumers – it’s little surprise that millions of Americans are now predisposed to smell a rat and fall prey to lies in times of crisis.

This is especially true given that so many of those same right-wing voices that spent years trying to outdo each other in ratcheting up the anti-government diatribes are, today, among the most determined critics of a strong public response to the pandemic.

And tragically, while this insidious phenomenon may well produce near-term gains for politicians and causes of the right, for a nation that desperately needs to hang together in order to confront and overcome any number of dire – even existential – crises, it is a grave and deeply worrisome threat.