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COVID protests and the dangers of the disinformation age

Commentary: COVID denialism and anti-vaxxers can’t be ignored anymore.

Anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination protesters march in Sydney on July 24.

Anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination protesters march in Sydney on July 24.

Don Arnold/Getty

It was a bad weekend in Australia. 

With half the country's population in lockdown, thousands flooded Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to protest COVID restrictions. It was a particularly disheartening sight in Sydney, where COVID-19 cases are surging and lockdown seems endless.

Among the sea of protesters were many concerned citizens, voicing worries about government overreach and the financial instability that accompanies harsh COVID restrictions. But the wave of protests seemed primarily pumped up by conspiracy thinking: T-shirts and signs calling COVID a hoax were easier to spot than masks. 

Social media was awash with tweets and Facebook posts describing the protesters as selfish and irresponsible, but alongside the anger was a sense of shame. This made Australia a national embarrassment, the sentiment went.

I wish Australia was the embarrassment of the world, because that would make Australia an exception. The truth is more concerning. Like the coronavirus itself, skepticism has now infected the entire globe. COVID denialism and anti-vaxxers are a minority, but not small enough to ignore anymore.

Protests, demonstrations and riots across the world have been fueled (at least partially) by such skepticism. Germany suffered particularly rough anti-lockdown protests last August, when 38,000 people marched in Berlin -- 400 of whom managed to storm the Reichstag building, home to Germany's parliament. In January the Netherlands experienced its worst riots in 40 years. The UK has seen regular demonstrations for much of the year, against both lockdowns and the vaccine.

Protesters have been particularly active in the last month. Last weekend over 100,000 people in France protested a "health pass" plan that, like a vaccine passport, would require proof of vaccination to enter bars, restaurants and more. Protests against similar schemes broke out this weekend in Italy and Greece — and France again. 

COVID protests are often made up of three components. First, ordinary citizens worried about freedom and job security. Second, COVID deniers, anti-vaxxers and other brands of skeptics looking to spread their message. Third, small political parties attempting to turn disenfranchised protesters into voters come election day. 

Take Germany. Its protests have largely been organized by a group called Querdenken ("Lateral Thinkers"), many followers of which believe COVID-19 is a plot. Meanwhile, far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) endorsed the marches and even adopted some of the protester's rhetoric

Australia's protests over the weekend featured a similar mix. Disaffected workers concerned about insufficient government support, COVID-skeptic Facebook and Telegram groups whose users claim, among other things, that the coronavirus is a pretext for "The Great Reset," and fringe politicians looking to drum up support

The problem with Australia's protests isn't that they're the exception. They're the norm. Like the coronavirus itself, the distrust that fuels these protests infects the entire world.

On March 20, a protester poses for a photo in London.

On March 20, a protester poses for a photo in London.

Hollie Adams/Getty

The silent protest

The vast majority of people in the US, Western Europe and Australia think COVID-19 is real. They trust that their governments -- no matter how incompetent -- aren't scheming with Bill Gates to inject microchips into their arms, one of the more prominent and ungrounded conspiracy theories. Amid anti-lockdown protests in June, for instance, 71% of adults in England supported lockdown extension. The AfD party that supported Germany's protesters appears to have become less popular for doing so.

Still, it's hard to think of a more dangerous minority than one that rejects vaccines in the midst of a pandemic. Like Donald Trump's 2016 election victory, the coronavirus's emergence illustrated the adamantine distrust an increasing number of people harbor for institutions. That distrust has helped transform fringe anti-vaxxer denialism into a small but significant social force.

Many of the concerns shared by COVID skeptics have an air of plausibility. That's part of the problem. They say vaccines were developed with concerning speed, that they've not been around long enough for us to definitively know the impact they have on fertility. They point to real reports of real people having adverse reactions (as is the case with a small percentage of recipients of any medication). Fueling the flames of suspicion is shifting health advice: In Australia, for instance, the AstraZeneca vaccine was officially recommended for everyone over 18 -- after being encouraged only to those 60 and up. The vaccine hesitant might question why AZ is suddenly safer for young people.

The issue is these concerns are often matched with an unreasonable aversion to media and medical institutions. Eschewing clarity from those sources, the hesitant find Facebook pages, Telegram groups and alternative news sites that spread dodgy reports and confirm their readers' worst fears. Unsurprisingly, QAnon conspiracy theorists have become attached to COVID denialism.

For Australia, Saturday's protests were the first battles in a much longer war. The country has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the western world thanks to a bungled rollout, so vaccine availability is a bigger issue than vaccine hesitancy. Once most of the country gets a jab, the pressure will be put on the hesitant to get the vaccine. Cue more protests, unrest and vaccine refusal.

This is the situation the US now finds itself in. With 55% of the population vaccinated, jab rates are slowing -- and COVID cases are rising. As the country's leaders work to convince the reluctant to roll up their sleeves, hundreds of avoidable deaths are recorded each week. The protests erupting across the world are scary, but stopping people from protesting is easier than convincing them to get vaccinated.

Distrust isn't new, but in 2021, more than any other recent year, distrust can kill.