Losing My Mother to the Anti-Vax Movement

by James Tilden on 12 July 2022
Losing My Mother to the Anti-Vax Movement
How my mother was seduced by hard rightwing politics

If the government was systematically stripping you of your rights and freedoms, you would fight it, right?

Public health measures and lockdowns demanded that we give up some basic civil liberties. Most people saw this as a utilitarian sacrifice in the face of serious illness or worse. My mother did not.

Prior to the pandemic, she had a parochial view of politics, often disengaged from discussing it, viewing it as a peripheral matter that did not affect her life. She lives an insular lifestyle in rural Ontario – about a two-hour drive west of Canada’s capital, Ottawa. There, her life is hermetically sealed, rarely exposed to the sort of demonstrations, strikes, and political headlines seen on a daily basis in London, where I moved three years ago. Naturally, my mother felt largely unaffected by the pandemic, even while it transformed the lives of her son and daughter. Because of this, she became increasingly sceptical of the skyrocketing number of case and death rates, the truth of which, during a phone call I had with her in the middle of 2020, she pointedly questioned. It was as if she was implying that the Canadian government was deep in a scandal of fabricating statistics. If these cases were questionable, and if her provincial lifestyle was unperturbed, then the conclusion was that the pandemic was essentially an apocryphal story. She didn’t see it, so it wasn’t there.

When the vaccine began to dominate the news, her scepticism hardened. Who needs a vaccine for a disease by which they are not affected? It was not to be trusted. The anti-vaccine movement spoke to her this way. She became enveloped in the world of anti-vax conspiracy, which metastasized into a worldview incorporating right-wing populist sentiment. This seemed to give her a sense of fraternity and meaning in a fringe group of like-minded individuals.

As a leftwing, politically-engaged, vaccinated millennial, it became increasingly difficult to reconcile my views with hers. Our connection became fraught at first and then torn entirely. After two years, it has become evident that my mother has become a politically different person than me, a disconcerting reality with which to contend. In coming to terms with it, I am left to question how it happened.

The seeds of cynicism

The pandemic caused a sudden and profound shift. It was a new life of social isolation. And it was easier for opinions to become consumed by echo-chambers of information and misinformation. Were lockdowns a utilitarian necessity or an infringement of civil liberty? Was the vaccine a necessary saviour or a pernicious distributor of new ills? It seemed a polarisation manifested almost naturally, where pro- versus anti-vaccine stances became entangled with leftwing versus rightwing views, respectively.

When it was clear that my mother began to sympathise with this rightwing, anti-vaccine sentiment, it was also evident that she lost hope in reality and found it in conspiracy. These theories disaffected her faith in science and politics to such an extent that her entire view of the world became cynical. She came to believe that there could be no scientific solution to the pandemic. Every time a health minister or epidemiologist reported something, she would turn to “alternative facts” either shared by her friends or that she found online. Her information ecosystem was made up of dubious sources and social media, whose algorithms are proven to promote increasingly extreme content in order to keep users engaged. I believe she fell victim to this, while her group of friends confirmed her bias.

Futile efforts

During the Omicron surge in late 2021, I purchased a ticket to fly home to Ottawa for Christmas. While I knew my travels would be marred by lockdown measures, exceptions were made for friends and family. I pleaded with my mother to get the vaccine – at least the first dose. She’s a 69-year-old woman, smoked nearly a pack a day for well over 40 years: very much in the vulnerable category. I was certainly not going to take the chance of transmitting a deadly disease and later find myself with a mother on a ventilator. To persuade her, I kept an even-handed understanding of her apprehension towards the vaccine, while attempting to bolster my argument with credible sources (articles from The New Yorker and The New York Times about the vaccine). She gracefully acknowledged my care and attention to her health, but she baulked at the notion of getting the vaccine, invoking the egregiously misappropriated “my body, my choice” defence – not to mention a myriad of “alternative facts”. This devolved into raised voices and her doubling down on her stance. She seemed to feel indignant and targeted; I felt it was hopeless to argue. I didn’t see her for Christmas. I stayed with my father, then flew back to London, not knowing when I would next see her.

I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter what exactly the theories are, I cannot argue with them. The “alternative facts” my mother believes propose such a litany of accusations – that vaccines cause autism, are experimental, cause blood clots – that they engender enough confusion to make sheer disbelief the most tenable stance. Nothing in science or politics holds legitimacy once you’re this far down the rabbithole and in a state of total distrust. There won’t be an article I can send her or an expert I can quote; there won’t be an emotional plea that will convince her.

Flag-waving freedom fighters

Enter the Freedom Convoy, a cross-country convoy of lorry drivers who descended upon Ottawa in January 2022. The US and Canadian governments had introduced a mandate making vaccinations compulsory for crossing the border. Although 90% of lorry drivers were pro-vaccine, as were their unions, these individuals objected. For weeks, they blockaded streets, honked their horns, shouted the word “freedom” long and hard, and protested against the government, vaccine mandates, the “liberal media”, and anyone who got in their way. The equivalent of the “Make America Great Again” faction south of Canada’s border, these “freedom-loving patriots” were unwavering in their support of anything that confirmed their anti-vaccine cum libertarian agenda. They wanted to distance themselves from science and reason, which they saw as a leftwing red herring. This was clear in their offensive visuals. Waved at the protest was everything from “Fuck Trudeau” flags, to signs with vaccine disinformation, even Confederate flags. They felt personally persecuted by the government and wanted their voices heard.

The Freedom Convoy claimed that the imposition of public health measures were the diktats of a tyrant. However, their freedom of peaceful assembly, as enshrined in Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, was (controversially) upheld by the authorities who allowed their occupation of downtown Ottawa to persist for weeks. Protesters appeared comically ignorant to this, waving signs claiming that the government was tyrannical or fascist.

If there was any tyranny – should I even dare attribute the term – it was in how this hard-rightwing anti-vax movement forcefully pushed their beliefs on the streets of downtown Ottawa. They isolated their supporters from loved ones’ opinions and pulled them deeper into the world of conspiracy and rightwing populism.

My mother engaged and sympathised with the protesters, referring to them as “heroes” and remarking that there was a “certain thrill” to witnessing their protests. While she didn’t accompany them to Ottawa, she did stand by the roadside, in negative twenty degree weather, on their Highway 17 route into the city, chanting them on, alongside what she believed were “literally thousands” of other supporters. Her friends went to Ottawa and reported back that it was a peaceful protest. She believes that they spoke for a “large majority” of Canadians and that they were slandered by the “liberal media” and “fake news”.

In contrast, my friends’ Instagram stories chronicled how these protestors literally defecated in the streets, harassed mask-wearing pedestrians, spat racial slurs at passersby, and polluted the core of the city with the noise of their horns and their rubbish. None of this came up when she expressed her solidarity with the Freedom Convoy over the phone to me.

These are the people my mother chose to believe, not me. My only way to deal with this is to resign myself to the fact that they legitimise her beliefs. The vast numbers of people who agreed with her upheld her distrust of pandemic politics. Despite being an overall minority in Canada, the “thrill” of watching a flag-waving convoy of honking vehicles preach her discontent gave her beliefs salience and verisimilitude. There is no question in my mind that this environment allowed her fringe opinions to stop feeling like fringe opinions. She felt as if she was among a formidable faction of society championing a reality to which others were woefully oblivious and from which others, like myself, needed saving.

My mother has sent me misinformation and pseudo-scientific articles in an attempt to emancipate me from what she believes is indoctrination. I cannot help but feel that this mission has given her meaning and purpose to deal with the confusion and chaos of the pandemic world. For me, there is nothing more head-spinning than watching my mother pursue a meaning predicated on misinformation “alternative facts”, and on denying that the Canadian government is a liberal democracy.

Where are we now?

My mother and I now have two irreconcilable worldviews. Polarised to such extremes, I feel I can no longer trust the tacit veracity of my mother’s wisdom as I once did. She has carved out her own new rightwing epistemology not only different from my reality but one that, thanks to the pandemic and the Freedom Convoy, is in active opposition. Her stance on vaccines and lockdowns developed into a worldview; one to which I am diametrically opposed.

She now sympathises with and supports the political agenda of the populist hard-right. She believes the Trudeau government is very near to fascism (which she conflates with communism). She voted for Maxime Bernier, the hard-right leader of the People’s Party of Canada and a supporter of the Freedom Convoy. She questions the science of climate change. She believes that the 2020 US presidential election was stolen.

My mother loves me and harbours no disdain for me or my views; the same is true of me to her. She has even told me, somewhat heartbreakingly, that she and I, despite our differences, can still look at a flower and see the same thing. We are still bonded by our intimately shared history. We are still mother and son.

These days our relationship must be confined to the apolitical, lest we descend into another horrible argument. Because identity is inherently political, and because I put aside my politics in conversation with her, I must put aside my identity. There becomes no way for her to truly know me anymore. Similarly, I have no way to get to know her – beyond looking at a flower, I suppose.