- Staunch anti-vaccine advocates are now also preaching the anti-mask message.
- Both movements are fueled by politics, anti-science rhetoric, and a uniquely American "don't tell me what to do" attitude.
- Vaccines and masks serve similar purposes: to protect people and their communities. But those who oppose them see them as a value statement — if they're so privileged.
- The irony is that by grasping at "freedom" by shunning masks, anti-maskers are delaying the true freedom of pre-pandemic life.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
It used to be that Dr. Rashid Buttar was well known only in alternative-medicine circles, where he promoted an anti-vaccine agenda.
But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, his message expanded. In addition to vaccines, he's now lambasting face masks.
Buttar, an osteopathic physician and conspiracy theorist, recently bragged that a conference he organized over Memorial Day weekend attracted hundreds of people "from all over the world" who didn't wear masks indoors. He has falsely claimed that face coverings reduce your oxygen intake, lead to toxin inhalation, impair your immune system, and highlight "your disturbing stupidity."
People who wear them, he said, are "COVIDiots."
Buttar is far from the only anti-vaccine advocate who's taken on an anti-mask crusade in 2020. And his audience is here for it.
A video series in which Buttar peddled coronavirus conspiracy theories garnered millions of views before YouTube removed it. Del Bigtree, the CEO of the anti-vaccination group Informed Consent Action Network, estimated on Business Insider Today that his own weekly anti-vaccine talk show's audience grew 25-fold from late February to late May.
"I absolutely see the pandemic as an opportunity," Bigtree said.
The well-oiled anti-vaccine machine is inhaling the anti-mask movement, playing on a long history of science skepticism and rebellion in the US. And it's a serious threat to public health.
"They're finding the sort of people that share the same values," Rupali Limaye, a social scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Insider.
"We have our work cut out for us."
Americans were desperate for masks when they couldn't have them. Then they railed against orders to wear them.
As the coronavirus spread across the US in early 2020, many Americans were desperate for masks.
"Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS!" US Surgeon General Jerome Adams said in a now infamous tweet on February 29, at a time when federal officials were trying to preserve medical masks for the frontline healthcare workers who needed them most.
Five weeks later, as evidence mounted that asymptomatic carriers could be a driving force of the pandemic, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised (but didn't mandate) that all Americans wear face masks.
Suddenly, some people resisted the face-covering behavior.
Like vaccine-hesitant parents who argue that childhood shots are ploys by pharmaceutical companies to make money (they are not), some anti-maskers chalked up the change in tone to a government conspiracy, Limaye said.
Sheriffs refused to enforce state and local mask mandates. Governors overturned local mask rules. Retail workers and citizens have been fatally shot, stabbed, and routinely threatened for telling others to put on face coverings.
"I dunno, somehow I don't see it for myself. I just don't," President Donald Trump, who has promoted dangerous falsehoods about vaccines, said of face masks in April as he announced the new CDC recommendations to wear them. "Maybe I'll change my mind."
He eventually did — three months later, after 140,000 Americans died from the virus.
Campaigning against a COVID-19 vaccine, anti-vaxxers are telling people to ditch masks and get infected
Like vaccines, masks have helped to prevent tens of thousands of people around the world from getting sick.
Hairdressers know it. Emergency-room doctors know it. The CDC director knows it. Even the president of the United States recently changed course and wore a mask while visiting injured US service members, saying he wouldn't want to spread anything around.
And like vaccine skeptics, anti-maskers are outspoken about unsubstantiated concerns.
Anti-maskers like Bigtree and Buttar warn of inhaling carbon dioxide when you wear a mask (to which Limaye said, "Welcome to planet Earth") and falsely claim that wearing masks destroys the immune system.
Anti-vaxxers latch on to the one-in-a-million stories of a bad reaction to a vaccine rather than the real risks of contracting measles, hepatitis, or the coronavirus.
Ultimately, the two agendas feed each other by implicitly encouraging people to get infected — a strategy they say will remove the need for a vaccine, despite evidence to the contrary.
Limaye said that "bringing these fringe groups together" was "frightening."
"Because it's more people, it's more ways for them to think about how they infiltrate and spread this misinformation," Limaye said.
Anti-vaccine and anti-mask messages tend to be more emotional and powerful than the truth
Both groups' messages can snowball on social media, where emotional, sensational, and unusual personal stories are far more powerful than bland public-health messages.
"If I post something [on Facebook] that's like, 'Hey, I took my 4-year-old to get the flu shot, it was an amazing experience' — that's not what I'm going to post," Limaye said. "I'm going to be like, 'Oh my God, it was terrible, she had a huge welt.' That's going to go viral."
Some people who had the coronavirus realized on their deathbeds that this kind of uneven risk calculation was wrong.
"This is no joke," a California man wrote on Facebook before he died of COVID-19. "If you have to go out wear a mask and practice social distancing. Don't be a f---ing idiot like me."
Anti-masking is global, but the US is a haven for science skepticism
Announcing his COVID-19 diagnosis to reporters this month, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro ripped off his mask and beamed. "Just look at my face," he said. "I'm fine."
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said recently: "If a mask was an option for the economy's reactivation, I'd put one on immediately. But it's not like that."
But the US uniquely prizes independence. And research has suggested that the strength of the country's anti-mask movement has been responsible for tens of thousands of deaths.
"We Americans, we value liberty," Ken Frazier, the CEO of the pharmaceutical giant Merck, said in a recent talk with Harvard Business School.
He added: "I've always believed it's because historically we've had these two big, beautiful oceans protecting us from the rest of the world. And so we could say, 'It's all about my liberty.' It's not about security, or group security.
"Well, this virus doesn't really care about that. And if you're going to do it, if you're going to exercise your liberty at my personal expense, then we can't control the pandemic."
Social scientists call the discomfort of feeling that your choices are being threatened "reactance" — and American culture encourages it to thrive.
In anti-vaxx circles, there's reactance against vaccines, seen as limiting a person's choice to decide what to put in their body. In anti-mask circles, there's reactance against masks, seen as threatening one's right to dress, breathe, and act in public as they please.
"This country was founded based on the premise that people didn't want the government telling them what to do," Adams, the surgeon general, recently told Business Insider. "And that's just a historical fact. And we always will struggle in the United States when we try to compel, by government fiat, people to do things that they don't understand why they should be doing them."
Perhaps there's no better example of this than the saga of the anti-vaxx leader Andrew Wakefield. After the British doctor was discredited for falsely linking vaccines and autism and spreading fear globally, the UK's General Medical Council in London said Wakefield had acted unethically, and his UK medical license was revoked.
Anti-vaxx and anti-mask sentiments are built on a scaffolding of privilege
Like resistance to vaccination, anti-mask sentiment is privilege at work.
People who live in communities that have never been exposed to deadly, vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles are similar to people who don't see the atrocities of COVID-19 because they don't work on the front lines of the fight to control the pandemic.
Both can wrongfully assume that they're not at risk of serious illness because they're not exposed, or think the threat is not as deadly as people say. But they're wrong.
In 2015, a 28-year-old immunocompromised woman in Washington state died of a measles infection. Her mother said she was vaccinated as a child, but her health status — and decreasing vaccination rates in the area — put her at a much higher risk.
Will anti-maskers gain steam or fade away?
Research has suggested that, without a vaccine, if everyone in the US were to put on a mask to go out in public, 33,000 lives could be saved by November.
Trump acknowledged for the first time last week that the mounting toll of the virus would "probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better." He then produced his own mask.
His about-face could shift the needle, despite the emotional tug of anti-vaxx voices like Buttar's and Bigtree's.
"Public opinion tends to take cues from political leaders that share your views," Cary Funk, the director of science and society research at the Pew Research Center, told Business Insider. "I would see the mask-wearing, in particular, as another example of that."
But while polls have indicated that most Americans understand that masks are a necessary part of pandemic life, health officials know that the American drive to live free or die will always push against orthodoxy in the US. Anti-maskers might fade into the background, their ranks swelling and receding much as the anti-vaxxers have over the years, but they will never quite disappear.
The irony is that "living free" by not wearing a mask is accelerating the road to death and hindering the path toward truly living free — taking a spontaneous vacation, belting out your favorite song at a concert, or shooting the breeze with strangers in a bar.
As the White House counselor Kellyanne Conway recently put it in an interview with Fox News: "To all these people out there who are resisting wearing a mask: Listen, folks, it costs nothing, it takes two seconds, and you'll get your liberties back sooner if you wear your mask."