The woman who organized Vancouver’s anti-lockdown protests in April wasn’t worried about catching COVID-19 from the small group that attended. That’s because Susan Standfield doesn’t think the virus is deadly for the average person. She holds this belief despite the fact that, by the day of her third protest, more than 150,000 people had died of the disease worldwide, eighty-six of them in British Columbia.

Listen to an audio version of this story

For more audio from The Walrus, subscribe to AMI-audio podcasts on iTunes.

She says it’s a fabricated pandemic “that’s really orchestrated, in large part, by the pharmaceutical industry. The money that’s going to be made off this corona vaccine is going to be unbelievable.” Indeed, more than 200 vaccine candidates are now in development, produced by labs all over the world at a cost of billions of dollars. A fifty-two-year-old mother of two unvaccinated children, ages seven and nine, Standfield describes herself as a human rights activist and content producer. Her husband works in hotel finance. She says her family is struggling financially, which she blames on the government’s lockdown measures. A graduate of Queen’s University, where she studied political science, she’s been researching vaccines and Big Pharma for about two and a half years and doesn’t trust any of the companies, much less any vaccine they produce, to protect people’s health.

“I’m not saying that there’s a whole bunch of vaccine shareholders sitting in a room wearing spooky costumes trying to kill people. It’s not like that. It’s just faulty, negligent industry practices,” she tells me. Billionaire Bill Gates, whose Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested in vaccines for numerous illnesses, has—Standfield continues—helped orchestrate the misinformation and may find himself indicted for crimes against humanity. Vaccine companies are unregulated. When a COVID-19 vaccine comes to market, it could kill millions of people. Her claims are a lot to swallow and fit into her larger world view and beliefs about the human body free of medical interference. “The one thing the industry never talks about is the power of the body that is in perfect health,” Standfield says. “That body would be able to fight off infections because it has strong natural immunity.”

While surveys suggest most Canadians eagerly await a cure for COVID-19, anti-vaxers—or “vaccine-choice advocates,” as they like to call themselves—have been doubling down on the paranoiac rhetoric and conspiracy theories on Facebook pages and other social media. But the battleground is not just online. On July 6, 2020, Vaccine Choice Canada, one of Canada’s most prominent anti-vax groups, was among several plaintiffs that filed a legal action in the Ontario Superior Court against the Canadian government, among others, for its “draconian and unjustifiable measures taken in response to COVID-19.” The lawsuit not only targets physical-distancing strategies—which have reduced the spread of the virus—but also promulgates the dangers of rushing a mandatory vaccine to market. “We want to have an evidence-based discussion in a court of law,” says Vaccine Choice Canada president Ted Kuntz.

Anti-vaxers have a knack for holding on to their beliefs no matter what inconvenient facts come along. The community is small—according to some estimates, only 1 to 3 percent of Canadians are hard-core supporters—but it can be very vocal and is organized enough to cause angst for public health officials. With the UK’s Center for Countering Digital Hate reporting that the largest 147 anti-vax social media accounts they investigated had a total of over 49 million followers—up 7.8 million since the start of the pandemic—it’s no surprise the World Health Organization considers “vaccine hesitancy” a top threat to global health. If too few people get vaccinated for COVID-19, we fail to reach herd immunity, putting those who can’t be effectively protected, like the immunocompromised and those with preexisting conditions, at risk.

Timothy Caulfield, a professor in the University of Alberta’s faculty of law and school of public health, says vaccine skeptics are capitalizing on the distrust toward pharmaceutical companies and the confusion around COVID-19 to spur worries about side effects. Caulfield fears the messaging is working. “We’re seeing skepticism for a vaccine that isn’t even here yet.” In April, 73 percent of Canadians surveyed by Impact Canada, a federally funded research initiative, agreed with the statement, “If a safe COVID-19 vaccine becomes available / recommended, I would get it.” Months later, when the same statement asked about an “available” vaccine, only 65 percent agreed. A recent pair of surveys by Angus Reid found more troubling numbers. In July, 46 percent of Canadians wanted to be the first to get vaccinated. Two months later, that dropped to 39 percent.

Successful prevention of disease and death can be self-defeating, in a way, because we rarely see what was prevented and so are less likely to fear it. We may even doubt the threat was real—doubts that create room for medical half-truths to take hold. COVID-19 may be one of the most terrifying diseases we currently face. It’s also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for anti-vaxers to spread their message.

Smallpox, which killed as many as 30 percent of those it infected, was last seen in Canada in 1962. Diphtheria—a disease that kills approximately one in ten people who get it—went from 9,057 cases in 1924 to zero by 1996. That’s largely due to inoculation. Over the course of the last century, vaccines have dramatically curtailed child sickness and death. From 1926 to 2011, the death rate of children between the ages of one and four dropped 98 percent.

That kind of success story has little effect on Gloria Dignazio, a Winnipeg mother who believes vaccines do more harm than good. After her daughter Sara was born, in 1992, the family took her for standard vaccines, some of which were followed by her daughter crying and screaming. Sara was eventually diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. At age twenty-eight, Dignazio’s daughter is still nonverbal and lives in a special-needs group home. “I feel she’s still suffering to this day because of the vaccinations,” she said. And Dignazio is not alone. Kuntz, Vaccine Choice Canada’s president, had a child with a lifetime of untreatable seizures that the family blames on childhood vaccines. His son, Joshua, died in 2017, at age thirty-two.

Correlation does not imply causation, but that’s not how the heart works. “Sometimes, it comes down to a bad experience that they’ve had, usually with the health care system, that wasn’t dealt with,” says Julie Bettinger, a vaccine-safety scientist at the BC Children’s Hospital.“Once that mistrust is there, it’s very difficult to counter.”

The human brain is prone to particular kinds of errors in judgment. Personal experience and anecdotes usually affect us more than scientific data does. When we form a belief, we tend to take notice of information that confirms it and dismiss information that unsettles it. “We are not good at dealing with uncertainty, and this is a particular challenge with new vaccines and new diseases,” says Devon Greyson, an assistant professor of health communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Vaccine refusers come from all walks of life—from the well educated and affluent to blue-collar libertarians.

With so many approaches to developing a COVID-19 vaccine—in labs big and small, corporate and academic—public health advocates are concerned that, if the vaccines that come to market are perceived as anything less than silver bullets, vaccine refusers will win converts. In the 1950s, a contaminated batch of a newly minted polio vaccine led to cases of permanent paralysis and death. Decades later, it can still come up in conversations with vaccine skeptics despite how much vaccine safety has improved since then. That obsession with failure threatens vaccine acceptance more broadly, but it’s particularly worrisome for governments that are depending on mainstream uptake of a COVID-19 vaccine to get our lives back to normal. Unfortunately, no medical intervention is risk free.

“None of these vaccines will be given approval for use in Canada without scrutiny, and I mean deep scrutiny,” says Noni MacDonald, a professor of pediatrics at Dalhousie University. Although the federal government aims to bring COVID-19 vaccines to market as quickly as possible, the Canadian guidelines for clinical trials, the most time-consuming part of the approval process, are still very strict. “But none of these vaccines, just like most new drugs, will have been done on millions of people. There will be rare and very rare side effects that we didn’t know anything about in a pre-licensure trial.” The possible imperfection of a COVID-19 vaccine is a red flag for refusers. “If you want to get it, go ahead, you get it,” says Dignazio. “But, when you have a reaction, there’s going to be nobody there to help you.” While vaccine refusers come from all walks of life—from the well educated and affluent to blue-collar libertarians—many share an obsessive faith in self-reliance, in finding answers outside of conventional channels. “Don’t rely on somebody with a PhD,” says Patrick Allard, a contractor and real estate investor who helped organize protests against the government’s COVID-19 measures in Winnipeg last spring. Allard, thirty-nine, claims he “almost died” from a vaccine he received at eighteen months, and this belief became part of his world view, magnifying the appeal of breaking off from experts and charting his own course. “Everything known to man is accessible on the internet.” That also includes what’s out of date, what we’re learning at this very minute, and of course, what’s completely fabricated.

Hard-core skeptics, like Allard and Standfield, insist they are open to new information. But it’s hard to imagine them ever changing their minds about vaccines. “There’s no way you can inject anything in the body and promise people they’ll be 100 percent safe,” says Standfield. “As soon as you enter the skin, there’s harm.”

Others might experience a foxhole conversion only when sickness and death affect someone in their own circle. “When you personalize a disease so there’s reality to it, it very much changes your perception about how serious that disease is, because it’s not just chatter,” says MacDonald.

When it comes to false claims, the countermove is to either confront or crack down. Facebook has banned ads discouraging vaccination, YouTube has pledged to remove videos with misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, and Pinterest’s policy is to direct any vaccine-related search by its 300 million users to reputable health organizations. Meanwhile, companies and governments are bracing for pushback from antivaccination groups as they rush to approve COVID-19 vaccines and roll-out strategies.

But, as the Vaccine Choice Canada lawsuit demonstrates, vaccine opponents have changed up their tactics, moving from warning about drug safety to adopting a “civil liberty” argument. This suggests that aggressive policies, such as mandatory vaccinations, could backfire. There’s a fine line between leaving a skeptic to stew in their erroneous beliefs and riling them up to the point of redoubling their efforts to win others over. The Canadian Paediatric Society has suggested that stricter vaccine requirements for school enrolment, for example, could inadvertently “feed into rights-based objections in anti-immunization campaigns, both in print and across social media.”

Earning public trust may simply require that Canada’s health care system do its job well: put out an effective vaccine, communicate clearly, and hope good sense prevails.

Paul Gallant
Paul Gallant is a Toronto-based journalist. His first novel, Still More Stubborn Stars, was published in fall 2021.
Spencer Flock
Spencer Flock is a Toronto-based illustrator. His work has appeared in Avenue Edmonton, Reader’s Digest, andCanadian Wildlife.