Enough with the harassment: How to deal with anti-vax cults

Editor’s note: This article is written by a Canadian medical officer of health. The author’s name has been omitted to prevent further acts of harassment and intimidation. We have closed the comments section to protect the author’s identity. 

Anti-vax protesters arrived at my home recently. I am not unique in having experienced this; many medical officers of health and civil servants have throughout the pandemic. I started in my current role recently, so although I have explicitly taken a strong position of no-tolerance of harassment against my staff and actively dispelling misinformation circulating from our community, this escalation was disconcerting.

It was suggested that my condemnation of protests obstructing our facility were in part to blame for the actions brought to my home over the weekend. Indeed, one sign affixed to my house read: “You didn’t like our protest at (the public health office) so … here we are!”

The protesters’ tactics are evidently intended to harass and intimidate, and suggesting that protests were brought to my home because of my strong public position amounts to victim-blaming. I also recognize that softening my strong public position in response may put wind in their sails as the groups sense Pyrrhic victory.

Having trained and worked in public health, I have learned our 3 Cs framework for vaccine uptake: complacency, convenience and confidence. Sometimes a fourth C is added, culture, but given my observations perhaps cult is a more appropriate framing for the present issues.

Increasingly, I am noting that the anti-vaxxers we are dealing with visibly in the public and bolstered by continuous media attention, those protesting at our hospitals and at my own home, demonstrate a cult-like phenomenon and are conflating broad antagonism with the system and government with anti-vaccination (and anti-lockdown, anti-mask) rhetoric.

As one individual wrote in social media comments related to the protesters at my house: “They don’t even care about the vaccines … This is just a social club for local assholes.” Some individuals may not deeply believe in what they spew or may be hypocritical in their personal decisions. These cults are also conflating broad disgruntlement with the pandemic and its restrictions on liberty with anti-vaccination. The media attention they garner and the messages they spread impact vaccine confidence for the rest of the population and may cause lasting damage to vaccine programs.

More scholarly study and new strategies are needed from public health and other arms of government to counter these anti-vaccination cults.

Firstly, we need to actively work with media for responsible reporting and avoid giving disproportionate voice to this vocal minority. This means supporting responsible journalism. Public health physicians or other vaccine experts must be as available and responsive to media inquiries as possible. It may mean bolstering pre-pandemic communications capacity given the heightening demands for information placed on our public health organizations.

Secondly, we need to counter vaccine misinformation rhetoric with strong public health messaging because if their loud rhetoric is not countered, it will impact confidence in the broader public. As Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, has written: “The bad guys are winning, in part because health agencies either underestimate or deny the reach of anti-science forces and are ill-equipped to counter it.” The common wisdom to “not vocally counter it” because it “adds fuel to the fire” represents a misunderstanding of the scope of the current problem. It also represents a misunderstanding of the principles of forest fire management. Sometimes directly and strongly countering with “a controlled burn” is healthier for the forest as a whole. This is, however, difficult to implement when you are targeted personally.

Thirdly, we need to consider that while much traditional vaccine hesitancy induced by internet misinformation exists, some anti-vaxxer groups now conform to cult-like characteristics. We must therefore learn from sociology’s study of the phenomenon. They form and multiply on social media. Cult characteristics include the seeking of loyalty to their leaders, opposing critical thinking and the same messaging rhetoric to indoctrinate their followers. We therefore need to learn from sociology on the practices for therapy and support for exiting cults that have been effective in other domains.

Fourthly, we need to ensure that public health workers, such as myself, are personally supported in their work and personally protected from these groups through strong and effective implementation of the amendments to the criminal code to counter health-care protests through Bill C-3. Provincial legislation prohibiting protests near health facilities, such as Quebec’s Law 105, is also important.

Anti-vaxxers are becoming a liability to our pandemic exit strategy. They influence broader individuals who are only vaccine hesitant. We need to act urgently before more individuals are recruited, their support base grows and confidence in vaccines and public health more broadly erodes further.

The comments section is closed.

  • Elisabeth says:

    Let’s try this again, debate is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy. The author of the post is hiding behind his desk inciting this community of readers to disengage in aforementioned democratic processes. Name calling will not solve the huge void in the false assertions that masks are healthy or safe. The lockdowns have consequences and the MOH will have to address those harms sooner or later.

  • Ron says:

    Healthy Debate


    removing comments that debate the article….
    doesn’t sound healthy to me…..

    Another media that only reports one side of the story

    • We have removed comments that have violated our community guidelines or revealed the author’s identity or personal information. This is also not a reported piece but an opinion where the author is entitled to make a one-sided argument.

  • Kate says:

    I don’t believe they are anti vaxxers. I believe they are pro choicers. Pro freedom over ones own body and bringing an important message. You on the other hand are promoting a tyrannical, anti-science, globalist world view of submit to what we say or else…. Either you are bought and paid for, or being bribed for some horrendous things you’ve done, or so brainwashed that you are no longer human.
    And those are the simple facts in what we are watching take place today with every politician or healthcrat that is promoting the eradication of bodily Autonomy. How is it that a woman can choose to abort a fetus but can not choose to avoid an experimental gene therapy agent in her body?? Where are the human rights here? And who gave you this sweeping power? And who is He/Him?

  • Lucas B says:

    I think what you are trying to install in the minds of your readers is that this “cult” should be taken out and you are looking for people to join together to do that. Are you trying to build your own so called “cult” to go after these people are trying to stand up for their beliefs. The country that I came to was a country of Freedom. Strong and Free. Why are you so afraid of a few people who don’t agree? Per your science they will be dead from the virus soon anyways so why worry about them? Unless of course you aren’t telling the truth and are afraid that more people will realize it.

    • Mathieu says:

      All you just said is clearly showing you don’t understand what he is saying.
      He is talking about facts and you are talking about beliefs. Beliefs leads to cult and religion, facts leads to science and knowledge.
      You are exactly what he talks about. You mention science says the non Vax will all die. This is nowhere mentioned in science. Only the risk for complications and ultimately in rare cases death is higher.
      He wants to spread information methodically verified and supported by facts and research. You want to let people claim false narrative even knowing it will be harmful and you hide behind a word, freedom. Does freedom gives the right to hurt and kill? No and that is what misinformation do.

  • D W says:

    Thank you I am 110% on your side.
    There really is only one way to deal with this “cult” as you correctly call them.
    Further legislation is required to restrict anyone not vaccinated.
    Eg. only allowed to shop Mondays.
    Must be badged and only allowed in public again at certain time and days. Anyone not vaccinated and not wearing their antivax badge clearly visible will be jailed. The purpose here is clearly to isolate them from the rest of us.
    I am also “end the lockdown” in fact we all are. And the only way to do that is to get everyone vaccinated.
    During SARS we isolated everyone in one hospital so it did not burden the rest of the system. Its not just medical workers suffering here. We all are as our entire medical system is being strangled by in creasing number of antivaxxers clogging our hospitals.
    Mo more. No vaccine you go to one isolated hospital. The other hospitals can then get back to treating responsible citizens for cancer and other illnesses for which they were designed.
    This might seem harsh but until we get this under control this cult is going to keep spreading Covid and this pandemic will go on for decades?

  • Tracey Carnahan says:

    I suspect many anti-vaxxers were already existing in a constant, low-level state of anger…life is unfair, I have no control, and similar sentiments. Now they have found a target and a like-minded posse. For them, it is a sense of power and control regained. Pseudo-psychology, perhaps. However, were we able to know these folks prior to the pandemic, many were probably deeply unhappy.

    • Shrinkieswife says:

      The FBI refers to such people with the trait you are describe, as “grievance collectors”.

  • Gary says:

    The media should stop covering them. No voice no results!

  • ANNA WAPNER says:

    In Israel they have winned!
    If you visit the Facebook of the Minister of Health, all the comments are written by anti-vaxxers and I am surprised that no one from the health ministry answered them and clarifies the health ministery point of view. And more than that, lately I think that that Facebook has became the best resource from the anti-vaxxers to get more friends!

  • Jackson Sonas says:

    It’s not a ‘healthy debate’ when the title refers to one side of the debate as people in cults. Strawmans and ad hominems.

    • Steve Roedde MD CCFF (EM) (retired) says:

      Sadly, I concur. Those with rigidly held and entrenched positions, on both extremes, are guilty of “cult-like” beliefs of a religious character. I understand the emotional response of the author, just as I understand the emotional response of those who have been vilified, silenced and lied-to by Public Health and political policy-makers in both Canada and the US.

      “My team”, is also part of the problem. Unfortunately, the widespread loss of trust in Public Health leadership will never be restored.

  • Pat Martin says:

    don’t need a parade. Or a convoy. Or a protest. I need an easing of strains on our hospital system. I need to comply with a simple request to do what I can to slow, stop and hopefully eradicate a disease. Maybe it is because I am in my seventies. I have not endured a world war, a depression, a famine or a severe illness. I was fortunate to be born at a time when I learned about these things from my parents and grandparents. They had endured these times and I respect and admire their courage and tenacity. They didn’t whine or even talk much about those times when their dreams were put on hold or when they had to do without. I have had my vaccinations and I adhere as best I can to safety protocol. It just seems to me to be the least I can do. Am I a weak, easily fooled individual? I don’t think so. I have spent decades promoting, negotiating, bargaining, writing, speaking out for freedoms. I am proud of those times. But I don’t believe in this parade of individuals who call themselves suddenly “woke” and who seem to thrive on attention and belittling others. I have stood for issues on my own or with very few others beside me and I have made a difference. I have done so legally and without hurting anyone else. No horns, no spewing of diatribes or diesel fuels. No character assassinations of those who objected or sought to block my focus. Just determination and a willingness to behave with dignity and resolution. But that’s me.

  • Claire Splint says:

    I have felt discouraged about the seeming reach of the antivaxxers. I want to believe they are a minority but they seem to garner so much attention that their voices dominate. There needs to be a louder voice coming from science and government so we can drown out the misinformation.

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