The pandemic has given new life to the anti-vaccine movement, causing it to spill beyond digital parenting groups and New Age wellness communities and infiltrate the discourse in more frightening ways. Last year, a report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that 147 top anti-vaxx social-media accounts have gained at least 7.8 million new followers since 2019. Conspiracy theories about the COVID vaccine have proliferated amongst the far right; according to Ethan Zuckerman, a professor at the University of Massachusetts and the former MIT Center for Civic Media, the anti-vaxx movement has undergone “almost a merger with QAnon” in the past year. In May, a conspiracy theory video called “Plandemic” received millions of views before being taken down; the film’s wild claims about the virus being manipulated in a lab and commandeered for profit by global elites continue to be major anti-vaxxer and Qanon talking points.
The Cut spoke to seven people dealing with friends or loved ones who oppose the COVID vaccine — some longtime anti-vaxxers, some newly radicalized — about how conspiracy theories have inflamed old tensions and torn relationships and families apart.
“He told our 5-year-old daughter that Mommy let the doctors put poison in her body.” — Jamie, 36, nurse, Oregon
When our daughter was a baby, my ex had a little bit of apprehension about vaccines, but he indicated that he didn’t know enough about it so he let me make the decisions. I got her fully vaccinated. We broke up soon after that.
A few years later, we had a meeting with her school, and the nurse mentioned that she was a little bit behind on some of her vaccines. He was sitting right there at the table, and he said, “Oh yeah, she has an appointment next week, and we’re gonna catch all that up.” So the next week, after the appointment, I sent him a text and said, “She did great.” He lost it on me. I was totally not prepared for that because he had been in the meeting. I’m like, “Dude, you were right there.” Later, he told our 5-year-old daughter that Mommy let the doctors put poison in her body.
He actually gave her chicken pox once. I was so pissed. He’s got this whole crew of anti-vaxx friends. She was between her first and second dose, and one of his friends’ kids had chicken pox at the time and they gave it to her. It wasn’t serious, but she had to quarantine for two weeks and I had to miss two weeks of work.
He’s now of the opinion that every vaccine on the planet is poison and a form of mass control. I don’t even really understand his entire philosophy. He thinks it’s gonna make people sick, it’s gonna cause cancer, it’s a way for the pharmaceutical industry to create revenue. Everything in his world is a big conspiracy. He voted for Trump because he thinks Trump is the guy who is, like, standing in the way of “the elites and their plan.” And now he’s not concerned about COVID at all. He thinks the restrictions are stupid. We share custody over my daughter, and he told her that if she were to get the COVID vaccine — she’s 9, she’s not even old enough to get it — that the government would own her. She came home from his house one night and was like, “Mom, what does that mean, ‘the government would own me’?” I said, “Honey, I don’t even know what that means.” I said, “You know how Dad feels about things, and it’s just one of his ideas that isn’t necessarily rooted in a whole lot of truth.” Fortunately, his daughter is smarter than he is.
“Clearly, their actions could really hurt people, but how much can I do?” — Michaela, 26, Virginia
My parents are pretty conservative. My dad’s a pastor at our local church; my mom was anti-vaxx for a while when all that stuff was going around saying vaccines caused autism. I think she’s over it now, but I don’t want to press her on it because I just don’t want to know.
My husband and I went to my parents’ place for Christmas. We quarantined for two weeks, we got tested, the whole thing. My parents are definitely not COVID deniers, and they have been pretty careful, comparatively. The church followed all of the regulations about how many people you can have together at one time, and they’ve met outside for a long time.
When we first got to my parents’ place, we noticed there was this chart on the fridge about COVID vaccines and whether they are “safe” for Christians to use. “Safe” means no fetal cells from abortions were used in their development. According to this chart, none of the vaccines are “safe.” I assumed my mom had put it up, but I didn’t say anything about it.
Then I watched my dad’s church on a livestream on Sunday morning. And during the announcements, they advertised that they were the ones who had developed this chart. I realized it wasn’t something my mom had found online; my dad’s church had developed this and put this out and thought it was a good and helpful thing.
At that point, I did bring it up with them and asked whether they were going to get vaccinated. Both my parents have health issues. My dad’s on chemotherapy, and in addition to working full time at the church, he works part time at an assisted-living facility. But he just said, “Oh yeah, I’m going to get vaccinated next week.” My mom said she’s not sure, but I think she will.
My dad just refused to acknowledge the hypocrisy of what he was doing when I brought it up with him. He wouldn’t dialogue about it. I said how dangerous I felt that was, to advertise it to hundreds of people and that people could die, but they didn’t really want to talk about it. I don’t know what my responsibility is in this situation. They’re my parents. They don’t have a ton of respect for my opinion. Clearly, their actions could really hurt people, but how much can I do?
“We are so close that we usually feel comfortable going at it with each other, but this feels different.” — Dana, 27, illustrator, Connecticut
One of my best friends works in the holistic-medicine world. We generally agree on stuff, like that it’s important to look at medicine holistically and preventatively as opposed to just treating symptoms like traditional Western medicine often does. But recently, she’s been talking a lot about how there hasn’t been enough time to develop a safe vaccine for COVID. She claims that she has seen a lot of data, in her opinion, that has shown adverse reactions and that perhaps the government is trying to cover up this data because it has a financial incentive.
We’ve fought about COVID a lot; she basically thinks the mental-health effects are worse than the virus and doesn’t believe in a full lockdown, and I disagree. We had one fight that got superheated, where we were just yelling at each other. I was driving, and I had to pull over because I was so upset.
Her dad is an essential worker, and he has a lot of preexisting conditions. When my friend heard he had signed up to get the vaccine, she threw an absolute fit and started crying and ultimately stopped her dad from getting it. After that, we stopped speaking.
I would say that historically we have a sisterly relationship, where we hash everything out. We are so close that we usually feel comfortable going at it with each other, but this feels different. This is health. It’s a really serious topic for her to assert these things on someone else. It’s awkward, and it’s different, and I don’t feel comfortable just carrying on with her if she’s not able to see my side, because I feel like she’s putting her own dad at risk.
It makes me upset that someone I really love holds these views. I feel like, in the end, we’ll have one big fight about it when it’s all over, and we’ll move on. I don’t think we’re not going to be friends anymore. That would be kind of unthinkable. But until then, we’re not really going to talk.
“We bring our kids over there every day.” — Greg, 35, educator, Indiana
My wife’s parents aren’t generally anti-vaxx, but they’re very against the COVID vaccination. They don’t have Fox News on 24/7 or anything like that, but they are certainly tied to that ecosystem in terms of their friends and some of their other family members. My mother-in-law especially is very active in her community; she runs a business and sees people all the time, so we just worry about her. She’s in her upper 60s, and my father-in-law is in his lower 70s and has a lot of underlying health issues.
My wife has already had her shots because she works in health care, and she’s trying to convince her parents to go because she’s worried about them. They were skeptical. Their opinion is that this whole thing was overblown to begin with. It was kind of surprising. We don’t talk about things like current events and politics with them that frequently.
I should probably add that they really avoid mask wearing, to a point where if the business requires masks, they won’t go there. That has also been a huge point of contention between my wife and her mom this past year. It’s put us in a tough position since we rely on them for child care. We bring our kids over there every day. And what if one of them gets sick and doesn’t know they have it? And then our kids get it from them? We’ve discussed it. That alone has not really changed their mind. They say, “We’re washing our hands, we’re not going out as much, we’re being careful.” A lot of it was financial and not being able to afford day care. We’re kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place and just hoping for the best, frankly.
“She’s been very proactively trying to ensure that the family members don’t get the vaccine.” — Elliot, 31, sales, Toronto
My aunt was always kind of a hippie. She lives in Australia; she runs these raw-vegan farm-stay retreats. She’s been through all the classic “vaccines cause autism” stuff, and she’s always been focused on naturopathic medicine. But recently, she’s gotten full-blown into the whole QAnon thing, and being anti-vaxx has become a huge part of that.
We have this family group chat, which is one massive thread of all the family across all the different time zones. There have been arguments because my aunt will call my sister and my other cousins trying to convince them not to allow their kids to ever get the COVID vaccine, saying it’s got nanotechnology in it that’s going to poison your kids, it’s got embryos in it, all that stuff. She’s been very proactively trying to ensure that the family members don’t get the vaccine.
Recently, my uncle sent a note to the group, essentially saying that the CEO of Pfizer, who created the first vaccine, was a son of a Holocaust survivor, saying like, “That’s so great!” — a classic Jewish-dad thing. That was the last straw for her. She sent this message in response saying that she was leaving the family group and that there was nothing to be proud of because the vaccine companies are murderers. She wrote that we’re in “a global war of consciousness, spirituality, and biochemical warfare” and that she can’t stand listening to any more of our superficial talk. But also that she loves us and is always here for us whenever we “wake up to what is happening.”
My family kind of dismisses her as, Oh yeah, that’s just crazy Katy going through one of her phases. Most of my family is just worried for her mental health; they think she’s sick. It would be almost more comforting to think that was the case, that it was an isolated thing. But when it’s happening on this scale, when there are so many other people — she’s truly built a community around QAnon, and it has completely taken over her identity and who she is.
“She said that me doing pro-vaxx work really was offensive to her and made her feel like I was calling her, like, a bad mom.” — Lisa, 27, software engineer, Seattle
My mom always told us vaccines were the part of Revelation where it talks about the mark of the beast. Very apocryphal. That was, like, a really big part of growing up. But when I was probably 16, the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, I took a biology class, and it really just kind of like blew my mind and made me question a million things. So I spent basically that whole summer just reading books about biology and evolution and basically lost my faith. And so that kind of led me to question a million other things.
I actually ended up working at vaccination clinics after I graduated. So I organized a bunch of those, and after that I worked in a community health center in Oregon, also doing public health and driving vaccination initiatives. I think it’s kind of to say that I went in exactly the opposite direction, and that definitely caused a lot of issues and a lot of tension — although my mom did end up going to nursing school right as I was graduating from high school, and she has become less religious over time. She did get some vaccines then. Still, it was always a big point of contention between us.
At the beginning of last year, my mom kind of pulled me aside and talked to me. I was pregnant at the time. She basically said the reason she had been so anti-vaxx was that she didn’t have all the information and that she was really nervous and was trying to do the best she could, and that me doing pro-vaxx work really was offensive to her and made her feel like I was calling her, like, a bad mom. So that was way more complicated. And that was in March, right at the beginning of COVID.
We’ve tried not to really talk about it too much in the past year. But recently, it’s become a lot more complicated because of the vaccine becoming available. She’s already had the opportunity to have the vaccine as a nurse, and she’s refused it. We have a baby, so I told her she could only come and visit if she quarantined and got two negative tests in a row, and she was willing to do that, though I was really worried the whole time. And she kept wanting to go out with my baby and take her out in public. While she was here, she also made comments about how I’m just falling for mainstream media and not doing my own research. I respond by trying to keep it as scientific as possible and trying to reference things she would have learned in college and in nursing school, and how statistics don’t lie.
It’s really, really difficult. I just try to kind of ignore it. But honestly, I don’t think she’s going to be willing to quarantine and test every single time she comes to visit. I am dreading the next time that comes up.
“She still connects the fact that I got the MMR vaccine to the fact that I have ADHD.” — Martha, 31, 911 dispatcher, Dallas
My mom homeschooled me and my two brothers. She did that to shelter us from the world. We’re a very conservative Christian family. I received no childhood vaccines, except the MMR vaccine because we are a military family and at one point we needed it to live overseas.
When I did get vaccinated as an adult, my mom was very vocal about how disappointed she was in me and how the vaccines were going to make me sick. She still connects the fact that I got the MMR vaccine to the fact that I have ADHD. For a long time, she used to claim I was autistic.
I was offered the COVID vaccine because I am considered a first responder. I’ve had both Moderna shots. When I spoke to her about getting the vaccine, she said that vaccines are against Christianity because they use unborn-fetus parts, that they are unsafe because they use mercury and formaldehyde, and how COVID is overblown and nobody has really died of it, that it’s always been some underlying health issue. That actually was kind of the final nail in the coffin. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and my mother and I don’t talk anymore. Though we already had a lot of issues — I’m a lesbian, and she never approved of that, obviously.
To be honest, it’s a relief to be separated from her. It’s been a relief to not have to deal with her bullshit.