While most of the world hungers for a vaccine to put an end to the death and economic destruction wrought by COVID-19, some anti-vaccine groups are joining with anti-lockdown protesters to challenge restrictions aimed at protecting public health. Vaccine critics suffered serious setbacks in the past year, as states strengthened immunization laws in response to measles outbreaks sparked by vaccine refusers. California tightened its vaccine requirements last fall despite protests during which anti-vaccine activists threw blood on state senators, assaulted the vaccine bill’s sponsor and shut down the legislature. Now, many of these same vaccine critics are joining a fight against stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns intended to stem the spread of the coronavirus, which had killed more than 47,000 Americans as of Thursday afternoon. “This is just a fresh coat of paint for the anti-vaccine movement in America, and an exploitative means for them to try to remain relevant,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Hotez said anti-vaccine groups are seizing on the anti-government sentiment stoked by conservative-leaning protesters to advance their cause. “Unfortunately, their strategy may work.” A group calling itself the Freedom Angels, whose members last year stood on chairs and chanted at public hearings on the California vaccine bill, say governors are abusing their power by shutting down gun shops and other businesses. Many anti-vaccine activists — who have claimed that diseases such as measles aren’t that serious — now contend the coronavirus isn’t dangerous enough to justify staying home. They agree with President Donald Trump that the “cure” for the pandemic could be worse than the disease itself. That’s led some vaccine foes to join the protesters — whom Trump has encouraged on Twitter — in staging demonstrations in state capitals to “reopen America.” “This is the time for people to take notice and really evaluate the freedoms they’re giving up, all in the name of perceived safety,” said Freedom Angels co-founder Heidi Munoz Gleisner in a Facebook video. The group organized a Monday rally in Sacramento called “Operation Gridlock.” “People need to get back to work, get back to life, get back into contact with their loved ones who they’re isolated from, they need to be able to have a paycheck,” group co-founder Tara Thornton told The Sacramento Bee, which interviewed her during the demonstration. “This is the grounds they will enslave us upon.” Freedom Angels did not respond to requests for interviews. The group’s website mentions plans for additional rallies and includes photos from Monday’s demonstration, such as one in which a protester holds a sign proclaiming “No Mandatory Vaccines.” But after the Monday event, the California Highway Patrol announced it had revoked the group’s permit for future protests because the gathering — which included dozens of people — violated the governor’s social distancing order. The highway patrol has now banned all group events at the Capitol during the pandemic to avoid spreading the coronavirus. A Big Tent The anti-vaccine movement has never been limited to one political party. Left-leaning vaccine critics — such as Children’s Health Defense, led by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — include environmentalists who are suspicious of chemical pollutants, corporations and “Big Pharma.” The Kennedy group’s website attacks Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for rushing “risky and uncertain coronavirus vaccines” into development as part of a “sweetheart deal” for drug companies. On the other side of the political spectrum, many anti-vaccine conservatives oppose state immunization requirements because they distrust “big government.”
- A group called Texans for Vaccine Choice has called on the governor to promise that no one will be forced to get a coronavirus vaccine in order to go to work or school.
- Posts on the Facebook page of Californians for Health Choice, which also opposed California’s vaccine laws, question stay-at-home orders and accuse government officials of refusing to admit the orders are a mistake.
- In a video on the Freedom Angels’ Facebook page, its founders describe stay-at-home orders as an abuse of government authority, and the closure of California gun shops as an assault on the Second Amendment. The group notes that guns could be essential for protection from rioters and looters looking to steal food during the pandemic.