Anti-science groups drive US protests against COVID lockdowns

By Joan Conrow

April 24, 2020

A deep dive into the American protests demanding an end to COVID-19 lockdowns exposes the influence of anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers and conservative religious and political groups.

Though the protests do reflect the festering frustrations and Constitutional concerns of some Americans in response to restrictions aimed to slow the spread of COVID-19, investigations reveal they have been funded and fomented by powerful interests seeking to advance political agendas.

With a new poll affirming that 72 percent of Americans still strongly support stay-at-home measures, the “open it up” rallies and traffic gridlock actions represent a distinct minority view. But they’ve gained outsized influence due to funding, legal assistance and organizational efforts provided by conservative interests, including gun advocates, and more are planned for the coming week.

The protestors have typically demanded that states reopen businesses and lift their restrictions on social distancing, though experts warn that rapid re-openings could have fatal consequences.“The math is unfortunately pretty simple. It’s not a matter of whether infections will increase but by how much,” Jeffrey Shaman, a leading epidemiologist at Columbia University, told The Washington Post.

In addition to politically challenging medical and scientific views about how to manage the global pandemic, the protests also have “become fertile ground for anti-vaccine activists, foreshadowing future showdowns over government-led efforts to help bring an end to the coronavirus pandemic,” according to a report in The Daily Beast.

“It’s not new that these libertarians and ultra-anti-government individuals have been working together with anti-vaccine activists in recent years,” Amy Pisani, executive director of pro-vaccine group Vaccinate Your Family, told The Daily Beast.

Anti-vaccine activists also pushed a hashtag calling for the dismissal of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top United States government infectious disease expert and a proponent of stay-at-home measures, The Daily Beast reported, and some rally participants are displaying signs with the “I do not consent” phrase popular in the anti-vaccine movement.

Social media posts further reveal the role of anti-vaxxers in the protests. Some members of anti-quarantine Facebook groups have vowed they will not accept a future COVID-19 vaccine while others are spreading the “mark of the beast” conspiracy theory that claims such a vaccine would carry a computerized “tracking chip.”

Meanwhile, an investigation by DeSmog found that many of the groups participating in anti-lockdown rallies “are also part of what sociologist Robert Brulle has called the climate change countermovement and what US Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has coined the ‘web of denial.’”

One group behind at least three of the rallies is the State Policy Network (SPN), a coalition of state-level conservative think tanks. SPN has received funding from the Mercer Family Foundation, which has donated more than $4 million to finance climate deniers, as well as the billionaire Koch brothers and the DeVos family, though the latter two have denied involvement in the anti-lockdown movement.

“In a 2010 policy briefing, SPN wrote of climate change that ‘the planet is believed to be experiencing a global cooling — not a warming’ and referred to potential climate regulations as ‘federal global warming controls,’” DeSmog reported. One SPN member is the Mackinac Center, which is based in Michigan, where one of the first rallies was held. It also denies the long-established scientific consensus on climate change.

Idaho Freedom Foundation, also a member of SPN, joined the April 17 rally at the Idaho state capitol. That group’s executive director, Wayne Hoffman, previously served as communications director for Idaho Congressman Bill Sali, a climate change denier.

Tim D’Annunzio, a North Carolina Republican congressional candidate who has called climate change “a hoax” based on “junk science,” offered to pay for buses to bring people to an anti-lockdown protest in that state’s capitol.

Stephen Moore, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank who previously denounced climate change as a “propaganda campaign,” has called for even more rallies. However, he received considerable backlash for his attempts to liken the protestors, most of whom are white, to the late Rosa Parks, an African-American civil rights icon.

The New York Times and Washington Post also published lengthy exposes documenting the role of conservative groups in rallies against the shutdowns. They include FreedomWorks and Tea Party Patriots, which joined forces with an anti-abortion group, Susan B. Anthony List, to ask the US Justice Department to lift state-imposed stay-at-home rules deemed an unconstitutional infringement on civil liberties.

The groups have relied heavily on social media to promote their cause and mobilize participants, prompting Facebook to declare it would remove posts by any groups advocating illegal behavior. Protestors, some of whom have shown up for the rallies heavily armed, have frequently flouted state rules around social distancing and wearing masks.

With most Americans expressing reluctance to quickly reopen their states, it’s unclear whether the rallies will ever reach a critical mass. But some, like sociologist Robert J. Brulle, fear the rallies, both orchestrated and organic, will have more unsettling impacts.

Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University whose research has focused on climate lobbying, told The Washington Post that “the blowback against the coronavirus precautions carries echoes of efforts to deny climate change, both of which rely on hostility toward government action. ‘These are extreme right-wing efforts to delegitimize government. It’s an anti-government crusade.’”

And if that sentiment takes hold, it could make it difficult to advance vaccination campaigns and climate mitigation efforts, as well as to address the COVID-19 pandemic.