The “sorryantivaxxer” website now records the stories of prominent anti-vaxxers and COVID deniers who have died of COVID-19. Some people may feel this is ghoulish, but I don’t. There’s a lesson to be learned from these unnecessary deaths. There are lives to be saved by exposing the ultimate consequences of disinformation.
Let’s not pretend the malign influence of COVID-19 deniers and anti-vaxxers doesn’t matter. Last month, the Peterson Center for Healthcare found that “163,000 COVID-19 deaths could have been prevented by vaccination since June 2021, when safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines were widely available to all adults in the U.S.” Most of those avoidable deaths are directly attributable to the spread of disinformation on the internet. Way too many Americans have been scared and conned into refusing to take the life-saving vaccines they are entitled to. Many more will certainly die this winter because of that disinformation.
Right-wing media outlets, most prominently at Fox News, are also to blame for politicizing the vaccines and further spreading myths. That’s why COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths are now increasingly concentrated in Republican-voting counties. When political persuasion is a significant risk factor for dying from an infectious disease, it’s a sad reflection on the importance information play in the lives – and deaths – of Americans today. Political affiliation is a prime indicator of one’s likelihood to contract the virus. Counties where at least 60% of the vote went to Trump in November 2020 had 2.73 times higher death rates than those that went for Biden.
The concept behind the sorryantivaxxer.com isn’t new. Around 15 years ago, I worked with a group (AIDStruth.org) that put together a web page: “AIDS denialists who have died.” The goal then was to shock gullible people into realizing the consequences of their poor choices. At that time, there was a small but noisy group of people who promoted the idea that HIV was not the cause of AIDS and that the anti-retroviral drugs were killing people.
The opposites were true, of course, but anxious people who were unsure of the facts about HIV/AIDS found disinformation on the Internet that put their own lives at risk. The truth was that coffee enemas and music therapy (sic) would not save them from AIDS and death, but the anti-retroviral drugs would. The AIDSTruth.org team took on the need to provide accurate information, including by creating the “dead denialists” page. Feedback told the team that it was an effective strategy, at least for some readers who hadn’t fully understood what could happen to them.
The AIDS denialist movement has vanished nowadays – mainly because their leaders are now mostly dead. But COVID-19 denial and the inter-related anti-vaxxer groups remain a dangerous, indeed lethal, impediment to America’s recovery from this pandemic. We see on their websites and videos the same deceptive tactics and outright lies that the AIDS denialists threw at us in their heyday. And like AIDS denialism, the same excuses are thrown out when the peddlers of death themselves die of COVID-19.
Doug Kuzma, a now-dead anti-vax podcaster contracted COVID-19 at a conference devoted to conspiracy theories (oh, the irony…). His friends allege he was actually infected with Anthrax. That kind of nonsense would be laughable were it not so serious.
Another prominent believer in QAnon conspiracy theories, Cirsten Weldon, claimed that only ‘idiots’ would agree to be vaccinated. She too died of COVID-19. Her friends responded by threatening her doctors with execution for the “crime” of not treating her with Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine – drugs that are utterly useless, but now part of the standard conspiracist playbook.
We know from experience that logic, facts, and persuasion never work with hard-core conspiracists. But vaccine-hesitant people are influenced by the zealots, and they just might change their minds if they realize how much danger they are being exposed to. That’s why the deaths of hard-core denialists can be salutary lessons. As Shakespeare put it in ‘Macbeth’: “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it”. If the bell that tolls for the dead anti-vaxxers rings loudly enough in the ears of the folks they influence, it might wake them up in time to save their lives.
Because that is a worthy goal, I applaud the actions of the people behind the “sorryantivaxxer ” website and encourage readers of this article to publicize it. Helping it go viral could dampen the worst ravages of the virus that is still killing so many of our fellow Americans – whether they believe it exists or not.