vax politics

The Unvaxxed Lefties Hiding in Plain Sight

They insist they’re more sophisticated than your typical anti-vaxxer. Not that they’re telling anyone.

Photo-Illustration: The Cut, Photos: Getty
Photo-Illustration: The Cut, Photos: Getty
Photo-Illustration: The Cut, Photos: Getty

The first time David lied about being vaccinated against COVID-19 was during his shift at an ice-cream shop in L.A. A few months ago, a co-worker asked if he’d gotten the shot, and the 24-year-old paused for a split second before saying “Yes.” The fib felt unnatural coming out of his mouth, but he was more worried about people assuming he was a Facebook-meme-believing, Trump-loving Republican, when he felt nothing could be further from the truth. David, who requested a pseudonym, is a “pretty radical leftist” who wrote in Bernie Sanders on the ballot last November and says he believes in “science and medicine.” But he’s also skeptical about a vaccine he feels Big Pharma rushed to the market. Why be a guinea pig? He’s not “anti-vaxx,” just anti-COVID vaxx, though his fellow lefties seem unable to separate his “genuine concerns about taking an experimental vaccine with widespread side effects from the more crazy conspiracy fears about nanobots and the rapture.” So the recent UCLA grad keeps these thoughts to himself, or posts them anonymously on Reddit and lies to friends and family. David decided that having “people make assumptions about your character or your intelligence” felt worse than just pretending to “be what they want you to be.”

During the pandemic, the prototypical anti-vaxxer emerged as a maskless conservative who prays to the altar of individual liberty and fears microchips being injected into their veins. And while the largest piece of the unvaccinated pie is certainly red, there’s a little slice of lefties just like David, whose skepticism of the jab is rivaled only by their rejection of right-wing stereotypes. These vaxx-less intelligentsia sit to the left of Democrats, somewhere on the spectrum near holistic mommies who swear by herbal remedies and New York’s downtown kids who infamously partied through the pandemic, scolds be damned. They are part of the 10 percent of Americans who’ve adopted a “wait and see” attitude toward the vaccine, more likely to hold progressive beliefs and approach the shot with raised eyebrows than middle fingers.

I started noticing them a few months ago on social media, where a handful of former classmates from my liberal-arts college were bad-mouthing Pfizer and Moderna. While some were posting from the rabbit hole, others mused about the need for critical thinking, open dialogue, and a close reading of scientific studies. These talking points seemed more ripped from our philosophy seminars than any Republican playbook, and were cushioned with caveats (“This is just for me, over here in my body in my demographic and specific living situation, for the time being”). Besides, they weren’t being reckless! They mask up and get tested, and some are fairly isolated. Similar arguments were recently made by unvaxxed Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers: “I’m not some sort of anti-vaxx flat-earther. I’m somebody who’s a critical thinker,” he told a radio host. “I just wanted to make the best choice for my body.” (Though we don’t know Rodgers’s politics, he has a history of supporting progressive causes, like racial equality and legal aid.) This shade of the anti-vaxx movement is just asking fellow leftists to keep an open mind, same as they would while discussing Plato on a grassy campus lawn. But often, their philosophical, anti-Establishment critiques are a way to justify personal fears — fears many have worked hard to hide.

Vaxx-hesitant progressives say they are under attack. Over and over again, they told me about feeling like outcasts in their lefty circles (for this reason, almost all asked for pseudonyms). “The term anti-vaxxer has become associated with crazy people,” says Amy, a 40-year-old Democrat with “socialist ideals.” “I feel like an outlaw.” Another woman said: “You’re either vaccinated or you’re an irrational, uneducated, dangerous conspiracy theorist who deserves to be silenced, shunned, and punished for daring to have a difference of opinion.” The options, she insisted, boil down to “shut up or deceive.”

Since she’s started to lie about being vaccinated, Sam feels like she’s living a double life. “It’s a really painful, awkward position I put myself in,” she said. “You have to keep track of who you’ve said what to. It’s the kind of thing that keeps you up at night.” But what choice did she have? The former Bernie supporter, who is “for peace and justice,” says there’s no room to admit she’s skeptical of the vaccine “without losing her freedoms” and even some of her relationships. David’s roommates, a pair of siblings, wanted nothing to do with him after their mother died of COVID-19; some close friends he’s been honest with have “really changed their opinion of me” or teasingly called him a Trump supporter. So he’s started lying. On a recent trip to New York, where bars and restaurants require proof, he brought his friend’s vaxx card and ID. Does he feel bad about it? “I don’t feel bad breaking rules that I don’t think are sensible,” he says.

While lying to a hostess is fairly low-risk, doing the same with your boss carries bigger consequences. When the ice-cream shop put a mandate in place, David tried to get an exemption, to no avail. He now works for a cryptocurrency firm that doesn’t require proof of vaccination, even though he goes into an office. He’s confident that after having COVID — well, what he suspects was COVID-19, back in January 2020 — he has full immunity anyway. How else to explain the fact that after going to three music festivals with thousands of people, he never tested positive? (Of course, according to the CDC, you should still get vaxxed even if you had the virus.) Amy knew better than to be honest with any of her colleagues at the West Coast university where she worked as a web producer; when the school implemented a mandate this fall, she left, claiming to be dissatisfied with her salary. It wasn’t a lie per se — she had recently been turned down for a raise because management had “higher priorities.” As an Asian American woman, she also felt frustrated by the university’s efforts at inclusivity; though they made up a sizable chunk of the student population, Asian people rarely appeared on the school’s website, she says. Now that she’s interviewing for new jobs, Amy’s faced with the same dilemma of how much to reveal.

Not all unvaccinated lefties are hiding in plain sight. Erin Galvin is honest with her friends and family, 98 percent of whom she says are jabbed but tend be “completely against mandates.” The very idea of lying bothers her — why rage against the shots privately only to feign support for them in public? The 35-year-old’s particular brand of vaccine hesitancy stems from her distrust of pharmaceutical companies, part of an anti-authority instinct she honed while studying at the “very hippie” University of New Hampshire where professors taught her to “question everything.” (Her Twitter bio reads “anti-establishment peasant seeking other anti-establishment peasants to organize the revolution ✌️✨🔥🧡.”) How could there not be corruption, she wondered, when the vaccine was developed on a rushed timeline by the likes of Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, brands that have been sued for billions after misleading patients or selling them cancer-causing products? Even though all three shots were still put through standard testing and trials, she didn’t trust them.

It’s all too slippery a slope for Galvin. She’s fine with masks and lockdowns but thinks mandates could “quickly descend into fascism.” (“It’s become kind of hypocritical for a lot of left-leaning people who are pro-choice to kind of fall along the line of mandate,” she told me.) Side effects are a big concern — she’s connected on Twitter with women who claim the vaccine has affected their periods, and a man who says his teenage daughter lost feeling in parts of her body after the shot. Sure, the examples are anecdotal (and not definitively correlated), but Galvin wants an open discussion about these negative reactions, and for vaccine developers to be legally responsible if something goes wrong. She worries about “irreversible” effects, like a stroke or becoming sterile (though multiple studies have found the vaccine has no effect on a woman’s fertility). In the end, there are just too many unknowns for her to feel safe. “To be honest,” she says, “it scares me.”

Fear was at the root of many arguments I heard, even if it took a while to get there. While most began by parroting some version of Galvin’s talking points about experimental vaccines and corporate corruption, their manifestos at times felt better suited for a shrink’s couch than a lectern. Many concerns were based on paranoid suspicions, not facts. Sure, the pool of those experiencing side effects might seem small, but what if the real numbers were being suppressed? What if in five years, the vaccinated were all diagnosed with cancer? (It’s worth noting that with all other vaccines, any negative effects have shown up within two months.) When they did veer into specifics, the information was often lacking in context or just plain wrong. A popular talking point was that since the vaccine doesn’t affect transmission, why get it? “The illusion of superhero invincibility that the pro-mRNA pushers have created is just that — an illusion,” one wrote to me in an email. “I don’t know that it’s super-effective,” said Galvin. “You don’t even have full protection.” (Recent studies show the jabbed are less contagious, and five times less likely to get COVID-19 in the first place.) Others said that as relatively young, healthy people, the vaccine poses a greater danger to their bodies than COVID-19 (which, again, is statistically untrue.)

How to account for these falsehoods from people who claim to want reasonable, objective debate? It made more sense when they started getting personal. There were horror stories about the medical system — my former classmate said he was “drugged and abused” at a hospital this summer after police brought him in for a psychological evaluation,* while a Black woman cited “the long history of health-care bias and genocide that has directly affected POC communities.” How could she trust doctors and scientists, given the long history of racial exploitation? Many had specific health concerns: A woman with a rare blood disorder worried the vaccine could kill her, and David was concerned the shot would exacerbate an inflammatory syndrome that’s been giving him “intestinal problems and hives” since he says he was infected with COVID-19. Even Aaron Rodgers, when pressed, claimed to be allergic to an ingredient in mRNA vaccines.

Amy is also terrified of potential side effects. She can list people who died after getting the shot (though of the five names she sent me over email, only one of the tragedies was directly linked to the vaccine) — and is convinced the actual number of people with serious reactions is being censored by scientists who have been “brainwashed to say that vaccines are effective and safe.” But even if she were to believe the chances of heart inflammation or paralysis are rare, which all research has shown, who’s to say she won’t get unlucky? “If I knew for sure the vaccine was safe for me,” Amy says, “then I would get it.”

Of course, one key difference between skeptics and vehement anti-vaxxers is that the former are much more persuadable. In fact, roughly a third of Americans who were hesitant to get vaxxed last year have since changed their minds. Some I spoke with are stiff holdouts: Galvin’s turned off by the necessity of boosters, and David’s not one to go back on a decision “after having committed for as long as I have.” But others showed more openness, like my classmate who said he’ll make a decision next spring, or a woman who’s worried about “various strains popping up.”

Amy has gone back and forth. At times she’s considered giving in, especially since she could need the vaccine to land another job (and besides, no one in her family has suffered any side effects). Then she’ll read about people’s severe reactions and completely change her mind. (“I cannot bring myself to be vaccinated,” she wrote in a recent email, linking to an article about an Australian woman who suffered a stroke as an extremely rare side effect of the AstraZeneca vaccine.) Even if she does come over to the vaxx side, Amy’s begun to question her politics. While she thought Trump was horrible, maybe, if he were still president, she’d still have her university job or be able to express her concerns more freely. After a lifetime of voting for Democrats, she’s suddenly feeling open to other candidates. “It’s kind of weird,” she said. “I sometimes wonder, well, am I really a Republican?”

*This post was updated to add more context on why a source was taken to the hospital.

The Unvaxxed Lefties Hiding in Plain Sight