Toronto Star ePaper

Anti-vax movement is still on the rise


“The bad guys are winning!”

That stark assessment about the growing power and influence of the nasty anti-vaxxer mob should deeply worry everyone who cares about the health of Canadians.

Indeed, the anti-vaccine movement is still on the rise almost four years after COVID-19 first reached Canada — and we can’t just keep hoping it will fade away.

Out of sight of most mainstream media, the antivaccine crowd, once considered a fringe element in Canadian society, has become major player in opposing vaccine mandates and government intervention, in spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories and raising money for conservative politicians.

They have also tapped into the despair of many Canadians impacted by sky-high mortgage rates, rising food prices and a general feeling that politicians don’t really care about their welfare.

In short, the anti-vax movement has evolved into a potent political force.

They’ve done it by becoming good at spreading their voices on Facebook, TikTok, Instagram and other social media sites, convincing more and more parents against immunizing their children.

And their impact is obvious — COVID-19 vaccine rates are falling and there’s a small, but growing hesitancy to get children vaccinated against diseases such as smallpox, polio and measles. In Ontario, the latest figures indicate that so far this year only 13 per cent of the 1.8 million eligible residents and barely 40 per cent of seniors have received the updated COVID-19 vaccine.

One of their top priorities is to loosen vaccine requirements in schools and workplaces.

The avoidable consequences could be increased pressure on hospitals and hundreds of millions of dollars in extra health-care spending, which alarms public health officials. This will cost lives in the long run.

Across Canada, right-wing politicians, such as federal Tory Leader Pierre Poilievre and Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, have led the charge for the anti-vaxxers, giving them cover and allowing them to portray themselves as free-speech advocates fighting the good fight on behalf of all Canadians.

The anti-vaxxers have put their faith in Poilievre, who has stoked their enthusiasm by such things as cheering on the trucker protests and his recent support for a proposed bill that would have barred the federal government from imposing COVID-19 vaccine mandates on public servants or restricting unvaccinated Canadians from boarding public transportation.

In return, the Conservatives are reaping the benefits in terms of an increased base of hard-core supporters eager to donate money to the party. Elections Canada records indicate the Poilievre-led Conservatives are on track in 2023 to break a record for fundraising, with more than $23 million collected so far.

With the tacit support of Poilievre, Smith and others, anti-vaccine radicals have taken on almost cultlike characteristics, forming their own “select” online communities, becoming increasingly emboldened, disrupting Liberal political events and organizing their own demonstrations.

In B.C., dozens of a supporters wearing T-shirts reading “Purebloods Stand Together” showed up in court to support a doctor who is suing the B.C. Supreme Court itself for a ruling that he says unfairly forced his children to be vaccinated. In Ontario earlier this year the College of Physicians and Surgeons was forced to move all its hearings online because of abuse, violence and threats.

What can be done to counter this movement? I’ve given up on the notion that facts will change an anti-vaxxer’s mind.

Instead, governments, health agencies and professional groups must take the lead in an all-out battle against anti-vaxxer propaganda and misinformation with renewed, strong public health messaging.

It was Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, who warned about “the bad guys,” cautioning that they “are winning, in part because health agencies either underestimate or deny the reach of antiscience forces and are ill-equipped to counter it.”

It’s a warning Canadians as well as American must take to heart because if we don’t take it seriously then the anti-vax movement will recruit more people, its base will expand and public confidence in vaccines will erode more than it has already.

Across Canada, right-wing politicians have led the charge for the anti-vaxxers, giving them cover and allowing them to portray themselves as free-speech advocates





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