Neoliberalism, paranoia and vaccination

Contrary to the beliefs of its adherents, anti-vaccine advocacy isn’t about vaccines. It’s about the political philosophy of neoliberalism and the American predilection for paranoia.

Neoliberalism places a premium on individual responsibility and minimizes the value of collective action. We see this in whose who venerate private industry and derogate goverment support. But we also see its impact in public health where collective action is absolutely required.

Anti-vax flourishes because neoliberalism derides the value of collection action to promote health.

Vaccination works through collective action. We cannot vaccinate 100% of the population since some are allergic or immunocompromised and infants are too young for some vaccinations. Vaccination works through herd immunity. Vaccines dramatically reducing the chance that an infected person will encounter an unprotected person.

Imagine that little Ainsley comes in close contact with 10 children per day. Now imagine that Ainsley develops diphtheria. Who is likely to catch diphtheria from Ainsley? If 99% of children are vaccinated and the vaccine is 95% effective, the odds are low that any of the 10 children she comes in contract with could get diphtheria. Thus, the outbreak of diphtheria ends with Ainsley (though it may end poor Ainsley’s life).

Now imagine that only 50% of children are vaccinated against diphtheria. That means that half the children are likely to be susceptible, and therefore diphtheria is almost certain to be transmitted. And since the children who catch diphtheria from Ainsley are going to expose additional children who aren’t vaccinated, the disease begins to spread like wild fire.

The effectiveness of vaccines depends on collective action, precisely the kind of action that is devalued in neoliberal philosophy.

But vaccines have been a spectacular success. How could anyone doubt their efficacy and safety?

To privilege individual over collective action, neoliberalism takes advantage of the paranoid style in American thinking, the belief that bad things are caused by conspiracies. Rather than acknowledge the role of chance, misunderstanding and just plain stupidity in government or industry blunders, the paranoid style leads people to believe that there is no such thing as mistakes, only deliberate, nefarious plots.

A tiny fraction of children WILL be harmed by vaccines. Indeed, vaccine consent forms inform parents of the rare risk of brain injury or death. Those afflicted with the paranoid style imagine that pharmaceutical companies deliberately allow injuries that could easily be prevented and have hidden the scale of those injuries. In addition, there are children who suffer from conditions, like autism, whose cause is still unknown. Those afflicted with the paranoid style look for someone to blame and vaccines, because of their ubiquity, are easy to blame.

It is hardly surprising then that neoliberal thinking, which places all responsibility for health and wellbeing on individuals, has led to the anti-vaccination movement, which venerates individual action, especially action in defiance of authority.

Ironically, the same people who are quick to see nefarious economic motives to public health projects like vaccination, are willfully blind to the economic motives of those who promote quackery. Anti-vax is nothing if not a money making enterprise; profits are high because unlike pharmaceutical companies that have to demonstate efficacy and safety, anti-vaxxers simply monetize nonsense — books, websites, supplements, immune “boosters” and detoxes.

Anti-vax flourishes not because many are being injured by vaccines; they aren’t. It flourishes because neoliberalism derides the value of collection action to promote health, lays complete responsibility for health and wellbeing on individuals and promotes a paranoid style of thinking.

Anti-vax advocacy dismisses collective action in favor of individual action (or inaction). As a result people die, while anti-vaxxers arrogantly trumpet ignorance and celebrity anti-vax advocates laugh all the way to the bank.

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