Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
(CNN)If we needed more proof of the magnitude of the threat posed by anti-vaccine activists, conspiracy theorists and irresponsible public figures, look no further than the emergence of the Omicron variant of Covid-19. As long as large segments of the world’s population remain unvaccinated, the virus survives, mutating into new forms, disrupting our lives and adding to the toll of disease and death.
Every time a Fox News personality, a politician or a social media influencer promotes false ideas about the vaccine or disparages the scientists battling the pandemic, they are not only making those who listen more likely to contract the coronavirus, they are also adding to our own seemingly endless pandemic plight.
The Omicron variant was first identified in South Africa, though we still don’t know exactly how or where it first developed. Perhaps it wouldn’t have appeared if more vaccines had been readily available, but that’s likely not the whole story.
There’s no question we need to get more vaccines to poorer countries. But it’s also true that in South Africa, lack of vaccines is not an issue. The issue, at least in part, is skepticism about the safety of the vaccine and the seriousness of the virus stoked by conspiracy theorists and their echo chamber.
Days before the news on Omicron last week, South African authorities told Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson to delay a planned shipment of vaccines because they were overstocked with unused shots, even though fewer than a third of the population was inoculated. The problem, officials say, is vaccine hesitancy.
Like people around the world, South Africans are hearing the toxic message, often emanating from the United States, that they should refuse the shot. That’s what one South African scientist discovered when her mother forwarded to her a video making outlandish claims about the vaccine, which her prayer group had found on Facebook. It came from the same osteopath whose ideas seem to get more bizarre by the day, now including a claim that the vaccine contains a “deadly parasite” that creates “neural networks” in the vaccinated, which can “influence their thoughts and actions.”
The outrageousness of the claims is escalating, most shockingly on Fox News, which has become a purveyor not just of deranged ideas but of its most offensive variants.
It’s hard to top the once-respected Lara Logan, the South African reporter who left “60 Minutes” in disgrace and joined Fox News shortly after. During an appearance on Fox News Primetime on Monday, Logan equated Dr. Anthony Fauci — the top infectious diseases doctor in the United States and one of the world’s most respected scientists — with none other than Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor known as the “Angel of Death” for performing brutally cruel experiments on concentration camp prisoners during World War II. It’s hard to imagine that the madness, the smears and the assault on science could become much worse, but even harder to believe they won’t.
Logan’s words resonated around the world, provoking a furious reaction. The Auschwitz Museum in Poland, on the site where Nazis murdered more than 1 million human beings, mostly Jews, rebuked Logan, noting that “exploiting the tragedy of people who became victims of pseudo-medical experiments in Auschwitz in a debate about vaccines, pandemic and people who fight for saving lives is shameful.” It called it, “a sad symptom of moral and intellectual decline.” The American Jewish Committee demanded an apology.
But Logan is hardly alone among Fox personalities and GOP politicians in promoting falsehoods and false equivalencies.
From the start of the pandemic, Republicans have turned Covid-19 into a political football. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz famously and wrongfully predicted that if Joe Biden became president, Democrats would immediately declare “everything’s magically better” with the pandemic.
The GOP’s deadly strategy of denying the seriousness of the problem and often discouraging vaccinations has an objective that is not hard to detect. It came out in the open last summer, when a Fox News reporter asked White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, “Whose fault” it is that the pandemic was getting worse. The implication appeared to be that it was Biden’s fault. The worse the pandemic goes, by this logic, the worse it is for Biden.
Then there’s the opposite logic, courtesy of one of the most Trumpist members of Congress. As soon as the Omicron variant became known, Texas Rep. Ronny Jackson, the controversial White House doctor-turned-politician, jumped to cast doubt on its very existence. “Here comes the MEV — the Midterm Election Variant,” he tweeted, claiming it was part of a Democratic plan to “CHEAT” (in all caps) in the election.
Sadly, for Republican voters, this strategy of turning the assault on the pandemic response into a political strategy, even with contradictory logic, is leading to a worsening death toll among their own ranks. Tragically for everyone else, it’s also contributing to a never-ending pandemic.
In October, 25 of every 100,000 people living in counties that voted heavily for Trump died of Covid. That was triple the rate of deaths in heavily Biden counties, according to data analysis cited by the New York Times.
Some people may take some unseemly satisfaction in knowing that the anti-vax measure is sweeping away the supporters of those who promote it, but the reality is that the virus does not limit itself to those who mock it.
Yes, we need to get everyone — everywhere — vaccinated. But as long as there’s a massive propaganda effort aimed at keeping people from accepting the vaccine, the arrival of Omicron is one more warning shot, one more sign that the pandemic can exploit social weaknesses, divisions and cynicism to continue preventing us from getting back our full lives. Those who tell the lies are at least partly responsible for everyone’s continuing plight.