Last summer, I went to see my family in northern California, in a small town at the base of the highest peak of the Cascade range just south of the Oregon border.
I woke up one morning and walked to a nearby meadow in the center of town that has a perfect view of the mountain. As I looked at the ground, still foggy from our round of drinks the night before, I thought how the area is so conservative and white, with such a racist and libertarian history, and yet when I am there, I hardly notice it – I am completely in my own bubble.
I continued on a familiar wooden path through the meadow. All of the sudden I saw stickers plastered below my feet, “Don’t Forget: It was the government that stole your freedoms, destroyed your businesses and ruined your children’s futures, not unvaccinated people.” Another read, “Fight the Government, Not Your Neighbor” and finally, “Mass non-compliance is the only way to end this nightmare.” Each sticker said, “Brought to you by the White Rose,” referencing a resistance group in Nazi Germany. I took pictures and followed the QR code to a Telegram channel dedicated to countering the “fear-mongering” of the “lies and propaganda” surrounding Covid-19. The channel had just over 62,000 subscribers from around the world.
In the tiny town of just over 3,000 people, 96 percent of whom are white, where 25 percent of people live in poverty, New Age culture thrives alongside an aging Italian community and among most of them, they agree on a deep distrust of medicine, government, pharmaceutical companies, and “the media.” Needless to say, many people in the area aren’t vaccinated. While the county is red, the town is mostly dominated by New Age culture that views the medical industry as their enemy in general even if they haven’t been directly impacted by Medical Apartheid.
The libertarian, white supremacist and far right ideas have lived alongside New Age distrust in government and institutions in the area for decades. And yet, the stickers and my conversations with people in the town painted an eerie picture: being vaccine hesitant was becoming a badge of non-conformity. As if the cool kids in town that once were punk and anti-government, were now anti-vaccine and convinced anyone who is vaccinated drank the Kool Aid.
After poring over Facebook feeds of young people in the area who refuse to get vaccinated, I found You Tube video after video that discuss how the CDC is misleading the public, how vaccines are making people sick, and how people are getting brainwashed into getting vaccinated. These were of course some of the skater friends I used to ditch school with to smoke weed, the people who introduced me to Hip Hop, and the people who built skate parks and mountain biking paths across the small town.
People wrote messages on their social media, noting how the “medical industrial complex” and “the media” and pharmaceutical companies are manipulating people and will ultimately make them less healthy. “How can we trust pharmaceutical companies to save us from this mess when they are part of the problem”?
One person said: “’The media’ is using fear around Covid to distract people from other problems.” They described how the fear around Covid-19 was being manipulated by the government and media to create a submissive population.
It struck me how the righteous (even if not fully articulated) anger at failed institutions, medicine, and government was searching for a way to express itself; it always has. And yet, propaganda dangerously equating vaccines and vaccine mandates with fascism was filling the void.
Still, the message plastered on the wooden path through the meadow made the obvious point that is all too often missed in the debate surrounding this crisis: We should fight the systems built to maintain class, not our neighbors. Blaming individuals for a society that has failed in epic proportions to keep people well and healthy more broadly, let alone in a pandemic, only fuels this reactionary response.