The Great Barrington Declaration, anti-vaccine fanatics and mutating conspiracy theories

The Great Barrington Declaration, a manifesto purportedly based on scientific advice, sets out alternative methods for dealing with the pandemic excluding lockdowns and public health measures. While seemingly concerned with community freedom, it is actually filled with dangerous delusions harmful to public health, and masks an ultra libertarian and eugenicist agenda.

The Great Barrington Declaration, signed in October 2020 and named after the town in which it was formed, was sponsored by the free-market libertarian American Institute for Economic Research (AIER). Based in Barrington, Massachusetts, the document calls for ‘focused protection’ – though what that involves is never fully explained.

Calling for the removal of lockdowns and public health measures, the signatories advocate ‘herd immunity’, letting the Covid-19 virus run through the community. In a nod to a eugenical perspective, the elderly and sick are to be quarantined – though they will be left to their own devices. Public health measures such as lockdowns are intrusive; make no mistake. However, to portray health measures and vaccinations as ‘tyranny’ is giving oxygen to fringe groups and anti-science business advocates, intent on prioritising corporate profits over community health.

Lockdowns have adverse impacts on mental health, and this is a consideration for public health officials. However, the solution proposed by big business – encapsulated in the Great Barrington Declaration – produces mental health impacts as a result of ‘letting the virus rip’. Sweden, one nation which avoided lockdown in the name of economic well-being, experienced high rates of mental health illnesses and adversities as a result of a fictional ‘herd immunity.’ The Swedish economy performed no better or worse than that of its lockdown-neighbours.

Dangerous fallacies and pseudoscience are the ideological pathogens currently spreading throughout the world. Herd immunity as proposed by ultra rightist groups, is an ideologically driven fiction, promoted by far right libertarians usually in the pay of billionaires. Letting an infectious disease or virus spread unopposed through the community is not going to achieve herd immunity. That will only result in overwhelming numbers of infections, overflowing and overworked hospitals, and undue pressure on health care provision.

Community (or herd) immunity is not achieved by letting a virus run riot and infect people in the community. It is achieved by implementing an immunisation strategy, vaccinating the population so that only a tiny minority is at risk of infection. No infection has ever been controlled by the simplistic measure of just ‘letting it rip.’

Anti-vaccine zealots and libertarians find common cause

Anti-vaxxers are the foot soldiers of the ultraright, providing a lightning rod for coalescing conspiracist movement. A veritable death cult of Covid-19 denialism is produced by a confluence of factors. The capitalist system has increased its assault on the ecological world, wreaking destruction – and the far right exploits this situation to recycle mutating conspiracy theories.

Robert Kennedy Junior (RFK), environmental lawyer and activist, compared the public health restrictions in the current pandemic to the Nazi-era laws persecuting Jews and ethnic minorities. He deliberately invoked a comparison to Anne Frank, a Jewish girl and diarist who defied Nazi authorities in the Netherlands. Though he apologised for those remarks, anti-vaccine zealots have frequently misused the Nazi analogy, condemning public health measures as tyrannical, and thus positioning themselves as ‘freedom fighters.’

RFK Jnr made his remarks while addressing an anti-vaccine rally, which brought together fascistic militia groups and ultrarightist forces in Washington in late January. His anti-vaccination attitudes have led him to align with far right groups – under a banner of ‘defeat the mandate.’ Thousands of such Trumpist zealots gathered, carrying placards which read, among other things, that vaccines are bio-weapons, and that Jesus was the only vaccine needed.

Big pharmaceutical corporations, through their profiteering activities, have generated resentment and discontent in the community. Hoarding vaccines in the predominantly wealthy nations, while millions in poorer countries remained unvaccinated, corporate pharmaceuticals stand exposed as profit-hungry entities. This discontent is being exploited by anti-vaxxer groups, misdirecting hostility towards public health systems and measures.

Over the decades, neoliberal austerity programmes have gradually reduced government health care systems, handing over medicine and health care to the large pharmaceutical corporations. In fact, it is no secret that the Moderna vaccine was initially developed by the tax-payer funded National Institute of Health. Government bodies do have the funding and scientific capacity to develop and distribute vaccines to the population. That would involve denying profits to the pharmaceutical multinationals.

Anti-vaccine misinformation and anti-science conspiracy theories are a dangerous detour; what is needed is a rethinking of the health care system as a public institution, not for private profits.

Removing the stranglehold that profiteering pharmaceutical corporations have on our health care – and its advocates in the political system – is a necessary first step towards restoring public confidence in a publicly-run health care system. The cranky libertarianism of the Great Barrington Declaration, and its supporters in the anti-vaccine movement, will only lead us into a lethal cul-de-sac.

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