To deal with any threat, you have to break it down into its component parts. Vaccine sceptics form an objective threat to society, undermining the effectiveness of public health measures and, when they get sick with the virus whose existence they do not believe in, putting a dangerous burden on the hospital system.
But they’re not all the same. Treating them as if they were plays into the hands of the malign political actors who want to fuse them into a single cause. The longer the pandemic goes on, the more frustration and heartbreak it causes, the greater the danger that that cause will be fascism.
There are, crudely, three kinds of so-called anti-vaxxers. In ascending order of purposeful malignity, they are the egoists, the paranoiacs and the fascists.
The egoists, I suspect from anecdotal evidence, are the most common. And they also represent the oddest cultural conglomeration, a reactionary mentality rooted in what used to be a progressive nexus.
The ironies abound. People who see resistance to vaccination as an anti-authoritarian act find themselves following genuine, pure-blooded authoritarians
At the heart of this mentality is the idealisation of bodily purity. For the most part, this notion took hold in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a perfectly rational response to the threats posed by bad food, industrial pollution and tainted water.
It also had a political and moral edge: eating simple and “natural” foods was a way of revolting against the hedonistic excesses of capitalist consumption. Vegetarian self-control was a rebuff to the grotesquerie of upper-class gluttony.
But this principle of bodily purity could also be an alternative religion, a secular way of showing oneself to be holy and even saintly. This strain of self-regard took hold with the New Age movement and it has been fully monetised – ironically as a form of elite consumption – by the “wellness” industry.
Sensible attitudes about taking care of one’s body and being careful about what goes into it have morphed into a strange hybrid of slavishly cult-like devotion to wellness gurus and narcissistic obsession with one’s own body as a temple of perfection and purity.
This subculture also has, as anyone who has ever glanced at Goop will recognise, a very high tolerance for ultra-nonsense. “Alternative” too often means an alternative to science, rationality and common sense.
It’s easy to see why this nexus forms a perfect breeding ground for anti-vaccination sentiment. Yoga “influencers”, gym fanatics and New Age gurus have been important vectors of misinformation.
The cognitive distortion involved in this is powerful because it works both ways. On the one hand, the vaccine is an impurity that will interfere with my body’s “natural” power. On the other, I don’t need the vaccine anyway because my body has been so carefully cultivated that it can withstand infection. What my body’s infections might do to other people does not, alas, come into it.
People who take all sorts of poorly regulated supplements because they make them feel strong and protected might be persuaded that a vaccine can do the same thing
This egoism sometimes overlaps with the second kind of anti-vaccine ideology: paranoia.
The paranoid view of the world famously rests on three certainties. Everything is connected; nothing is accidental; and nothing is the way it seems. Again, it is all too easy to see how Covid-19 plays into this worldview.
Everything really is connected: someone coughs in a market in Wuhan and a beloved grandmother dies in Galway. Nothing about it is entirely accidental – our deliberate destruction of the natural world clearly has a lot to do with what is happening.
And both the virus and our state of knowledge about how to deal with it are evolving and therefore subject to the vagaries of trial and error. There is no absolutely fixed “truth”.
This is not to excuse conspiracy theorists or to ignore the toxic effects of organised disinformation. It is simply to say that at least some people who fall for these theories do so for what seem to them like genuine and rational reasons.
This is emphatically not true of the third cohort: the fascists. Across much of the world, the far right has seized on the egotists and the paranoiacs as useful idiots to be deployed in their wider war on democracy.
They do what fascists have always done: speak to genuine fears, give those anxieties a simplistic explanation that generates hatred of Them, and use this dread and distress to create the chaos and disorder from which they hope to emerge as the strong-willed saviours of civilisation.
Here the ironies abound. People who see resistance to vaccination as an anti-authoritarian act find themselves following genuine, pure-blooded authoritarians.
People who are paranoid about doctors, nurses and scientists place a naïve trust in creeps who really are engaged in political conspiracies. If the fascists ever do take power again, the New Age egotists will be among the first in line for the camps.
Every week, it gets harder for a general public that overwhelmingly understands the need for vaccination to stay patient with those who don't or won't
What public policy should try to do is to fight back by recognising these different kinds of vaccine sceptics and exploiting the contradictions between them.
Instead of treating them all as an undifferentiated mass of fools and knaves, it is better to think about their individual motivations.
The fascists can’t be argued with, not least because they don’t actually give a damn either way about vaccines. The issue exists for them merely as another anxiety to be exploited. The point, therefore, is to try to separate the other two groups from these malignant forces.
In dealing with the egotists, it is surely best to appeal to their egos. Telling them that they are stupid and wrong won’t work. Neither, obviously, does the plea to think about other people.
But appealing to their sense that their own bodies are precious and special just might. People who take all sorts of poorly regulated supplements because they make them feel strong and protected might be persuaded that a vaccine can do the same thing.
As for the paranoiacs, the aim should be to work with, not against, their suspicion and mistrust. They won’t listen to official admonitions. But their friends and neighbours can ask them why they are so willing to trust online “influencers” and smooth-talking charlatans.
Try to get them to see that the spread of conspiracy theories is itself a real and well-funded conspiracy. People who take pride in “thinking for themselves” must be urged to actually do so.
Every week, it gets harder for a general public that overwhelmingly understands the need for vaccination to stay patient with those who don’t or won’t. People are dying, not just from Covid, but because the unvaccinated are taking up scarce capacity in our already overstretched hospitals.
But rage, however justified, is self-defeating. It merely drives misguided people towards those who want to turn a biological pandemic into a political plague. It adds to the chances that those who won’t get a shot in the arm end up raising that arm in stiff salute.