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Dangers behind antimaskers and antivaxxers: How to combat both


 

Parallels between antimaskers, antivaxxers

Opponents to masks fall on a spectrum, explains Vineet Arora, MD, a hospitalist and associate chief medical officer–clinical learning environment at University of Chicago Medicine. People who believe conspiracy theories and push misinformation are on one end, she said. There are also those who generally don’t believe the seriousness of the pandemic, feel their risk is minimal, or doubt the benefits of masks.

The two trains of thought resemble the distinction among parents who are antivaccine and those who are simply “vaccine hesitant,” says Arora, who co-authored a recent article about masking and misinformation that addresses antivaccine attitudes.

“While the antimask sentiment gets a lot of attention, I think it’s important to highlight there’s a lot of vocal anti-mask sentiment since most people are supportive of masks,” she said. “There might be people sitting on the fence who are just unsure about wearing a mask. That’s understandable because the science and the communication has evolved. There was a lot of early mixed messages about masking. Anytime you have confusion about the science or the science is evolving, it’s easy to have misinformation and then have that take off as myth.”

Just as antivaxxers work to swing the opinion of the vaccine hesitant, antimaskers are vying with public health advocates for the support of the mask hesitant, she said. Creating doubt in public health authorities is one way they are gaining followers. Anti-maskers often question and scrutinize past messaging about masks by public health officials, claiming that because guidance on masks has changed over time, the science behind masks and current guidance can’t be trusted, Wolynn said. Similarly, antivaxxers frequently question past actions by public health officials, such as the Tuskegee Experiment (which began in 1932), to try to poke holes in the credibility of public health officials and their advice.

Both the antimask and antivaccine movements also tend to base their resistance on a personal liberties argument, adds Jacqueline Winfield Fincher, MD, president for the American College of Physicians and an internist based in Thomson, Georgia. Antimaskers contend they should be free to decide whether to wear face coverings and that rules requiring masks infringe upon their civil liberties. Similarly, antivaxxers argue they should be free to decide whether to vaccinate their children and contend vaccine mandates violate their personal liberties.

Taking a deeper look, fear and control are two likely drivers of antimasking and antivaccine attitudes, Fincher said. Those refusing to wear masks may feel they have no control over the pandemic or its impacts, but they can control how they respond to mask-wearing requirements, she said.

Antivaccine parents often want more control over their children’s healthcare and falsely believe that vaccines are injecting something harmful into their children or may lead to harmful reactions.

“It’s a control issue and a defense mechanism,” she said. “Some people may feel helpless to deal with the pandemic or believe since it is not affecting them or their family, that it is not real. ‘If I just deny it and I don’t acknowledge facts, I don’t have to worry about it or do anything about it, and therefore I will have more control over my day-to-day life.’”

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