Anti-vaccination protest
An anti-vaccination protest outside Los Angeles City Hall in August. Courtesy LAPD

Smallpox is a particularly horrible, particularly lethal disease. It nearly wiped out the native populations in the Americas, and in the eighteenth century, killed about 400,000 Europeans every year, including five monarchs. Anywhere from 30-60% of those infected died from the disease. And those who survived were often either blinded or scarred for life.

So when Edward Jenner in 1796 discovered a means of preventing people from getting smallpox, you would think the discovery would have been greeted with universal huzzahs. But that didn’t happen, and the anti-vaccination movements at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries bear a remarkable resemblance to the anti-COVID vaccination movement today, although with a few twists. As Mark Twain once said, history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.

In England, the 1853 Vaccination Act made smallpox vaccination compulsory for all infants, and in 1867, compulsory vaccination was extended to age 14. Again, given what smallpox could do, you’d think that everyone would clamor to get the vaccine. But instead, the government faced a tsunami of resistance.

We are to be leeched, bled, blistered, burned, douched, frozen, pilled, potioned, lotioned, salivated . . . by Act of Parliament,” thundered one anti-vax proponent in 1854. The motivation was not so much anti-science, but a powerful sense that compulsory vaccination contradicted the basic principles underlying the British polity: “no other law in England […] so fundamentally violates the principles of individual liberty” as the Vaccination Act, wrote another anti-vax proponent in 1902. In 1898, a parliamentarian proclaimed that the state had no right to tell anybody “what they should do with their bodies or with their children.” Mandatory vaccination, they argued, amounted to a form of bodily “tyranny.”

A similar set of protests occurred in the United States at roughly the same time. The historian Robert D. Johnston observed that by the end of the 19th century, “opposition to vaccination achieved the status of a genuine and effective, if intermittent, mass movement.” As in England, the resistance was based on compulsory vaccination violating fundamental freedoms. Forcing the vaccine on everyone, wrote Lora Little, the leader of the anti-vax movement in the US, “is an outrage and a gross interference in land of freedom.”

A 1920 pamphlet stated bluntly that compulsory vaccination “violates the principles of democracy and is antagonistic to American ideals.” It was tantamount to decreeing that everyone attend the same church. Another declared that the state had no right to make decisions like that for their children: “If I want to take a chance with my child, why is it any of the health authorities’ business?” And there was a new, particularly American element: distrust of expertise, and calling the vaccination program a plot by corporations to make money: Little accused “slick doctors,” imbued with “corporation spirit,” of lying about statistics so they could make huge profits.

We see many of the same arguments today. A group of parents is suing California to halt the school mask mandate object because it takes away parental choice: “The bottom line is the government should not be doing parents’ jobs. We’re the parents; we know what’s best for our children.” At an anti-vaccine rally in Massachusetts, a woman draped in an American flag held up a sign saying: “Let me call my own shots,” repeating the notion that a vaccine mandate violates fundamental American liberties.

Florida’s Governor, Ron DeSantis issued an executive order banning a vaccine mandate and vaccine passports because they will “reduce individual liberty.” He even called a mask mandate “the most significant threat to freedom in [his] lifetime.” When the University of Wisconsin’s interim-president, Tommy Thompson, defied Republican lawmakers by putting in place various COVID-19 protocols, including encouraging but not requiring vaccines, one state senator objected because: “Thompson has once again shown his belief in big government control over the rights of individuals to make their own health related decisions.”

It looks like the past is repeating itself, but there are key differences between then and now. The original resistance to the smallpox vaccine was in its own way understandable. Inserting  pus from an infected cow or an infected person into one’s arm is not an enticing prospect, and the production conditions for serum were not exactly sterile. In the absence of regulations, “dust, hair, and even dung” contaminated the serum, which was “equally a product of the barnyard and the laboratory.”

 But vaccines and even vaccine mandates have long since stopped being controversial. When the polio vaccine came out in 1955, people “could not get it fast enough.” Today, everyone accepts that children must receive various vaccines before they go to school, and you have to get a yellow fever vaccine before travelling to sub-Saharan Africa and tropical South America. Nobody claims that the mumps or measles vaccine, or getting a tetanus shot, somehow violates their fundamental rights. So what changed?

In short, America changed. When the polio vaccine came out, faith in science and government was at an all-time high, due in part to the Cold War. But America today is awash in conspiracy theories. According to a recent poll, 15% of Americans believe in QAnon, which holds that the government is run by Satan-worshiping pedophiles. That’s over 30 million people. 53% of Republicans believe that Donald Trump won the election, and 25% of all Americans buy into The Big Lie. Again, that’s millions and millions of people.

Even those who may not believe in fairy tales don’t necessarily trust the government. According to the Pew Research Center, faith in government has plummeted to historic lows. Only 36% of Democrats and 9% of Republicans say they trust the government. Only slightly more trust the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even a United States Senator, Susan Collins, said that while she once considered the CDC the gold standard, “I don’t anymore.”

But while the loss of faith in reason is appalling, and while maybe we should pity those who genuinely believe COVID-19 is either a hoax or a plot to remove Trump, there’s another group who deserve contempt: Republicans who cynically use COVID for political advantage. You can identify them by how these politicians suddenly abandon what used to be core Republican principles when it comes to the virus. 

For example, even though Republicans generally hate regulations, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order fining businesses up to $1,000 for requiring masks or vaccination. Similarly, the Florida legislature, dominated by Republicans, passed a law forbidding businesses to require patrons be vaccinated, despite the earlier distaste for “burdensome regulations.” It seems they hate governments telling businesses how to conduct their affairs until they want to tell businesses how to conduct their affairs.

Surely if a baker can discriminate against gay people because they offend his religious sensibilities, a business can protect the health of its employees and customers by requiring patrons to either mask up or be vaccinated. Or maybe not. Other Republicans have simply abandoned the public good. John Cox, a Republican candidate for governor of California (should Gavin Newsom be recalled), opposes mandates because other people don’t matter: “If I’m vaccinated — which I am — do I really care if someone is unvaccinated?” I’ve got mine; who cares about you?

It’s true that some Republicans have either been silent on the matter or voiced qualified approval of mandates. Minority leader Mitch McConnell, for example, when asked about mandates, said that he’d leave the matter up to school boards and employers, but not before stating that “I don’t think it’s the business of the government, certainly not the federal government, [to make that recommendation].” And Ohio Governor Mike DeWine has said he opposes an anti-mandate bill currently working its way through the legislature.

But these Republican voices are rare, and having created the anti-vax monster for their own gain, like Victor Frankenstein’s creature, they can no longer control it. At a recent rally in Alabama, disgraced former president Donald Trump actually endorsed vaccines, and he got booed! MAGA-verse oracle Alex Jones even called Trump a “dumbass” for endorsing vaccines, implying that Trump was ruining his electoral chances: “if you don’t have the good sense to save yourself and your political career, that’s OK.”

On the one hand, it certainly seems as if the tide is turning. More and more companies are demanding that their employees get vaccinated. Delta Airlines announced they will give their employees a choice: get jabbed, or pay an extra $200 a month for their healthcare. A recent Post-ABC poll showed that vaccine hesitancy has substantially declined.

But the damage is done. Despite FDA approval for the Pfizer vaccine, many still refuse to get the shot. Having been marinated in conspiracy theories, they justify their skepticism through another conspiracy theory. This time: the vaccine breaks down healthy cells. Or that the approval was rushed at Biden’s behest. So says the QAnon diva, Marjorie Taylor Greene. Or that the FDA didn’t really approve the Pfizer vaccine, that it’s still “experimental.”

COVID-19 will in time fade. Like all previous pandemics, be it bubonic plague, the sweating sickness, SARS, etc., this too will run its course. But when and how the conspiracy theory pandemic will end is not so clear. This too has infected the world. For example, a vendor in Bethlehem refused the vaccine because “I read online that people will die two years after they take the vaccine.”

There is no vaccine against unreason.

Peter C. Herman is professor of English literature at San Diego State University. He has published on Shakespeare, Milton and the literature of terrorism, and has published essays in Salon, Inside Higher Ed, as well as Times of San Diego. His most recent book is “Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11” (Routledge, 2020).