My group is structuring our group in chronology (past, present, and future implications of anti-vaccine movements), and my topic falls within the “present” category. Our chapter is specifically geared towards explaining the history behind the anti-vaccine movement, how it is playing out today during the COVID-19 pandemic, and future ideas and implications of how we can combat these anti-vax ideals moving forward, as artists, scientists, and as a society as a whole.
My chapter will be titled, “Art in the Quest to Vaccinate the World”
Below is a very rough draft, which I will continue to flesh out, particularly with the art pieces I discuss.
The media frenzy surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic has been dominated by jargon that has become all-too-familiar: flattening the curve, social distancing, herd immunity, and vaccination development. As the conversation has shifted as the pandemic has progressed, something that has been on the minds of forward-thinking scientists and social activists alike has been vaccine availability.
Last month, articles came out stating that the coronavirus vaccine may be at least 18 months away—a fact at which the public and scientists gawked at, but for very different reasons. While many individuals, already faced with frustration, boredom, and anxiety over the widespread stay-at-home orders, were upset at the thought of a lengthened time marked by long-term quarantine and other public health measures, some scientists were raising their eyebrows at the short time frame, given that vaccines typically take 2-5 years to develop (Thompson). It’s a delicate balance between saving lives by protecting them from the virus, and saving livelihoods by rolling out a vaccine and other measures quicker, which would allow society to return to some semblance of “normal” in a shorter amount of time. This, however, can be particularly concerning in the context of sped-up vaccine development, particularly because the potential adverse side effects could “‘set back vaccine acceptance in an already vaccine-skeptical culture for decades,’” according to Dr. Greg Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic's Vaccine Research Group (Thompson).
The vaccine-skeptical culture referred to by Dr. Poland is not a new social phenomenon. The so-called “anti-vax” culture is something that the World Health Organization (WHO) has termed “vaccine hesitancy,” which it also declared one of the top 10 threats to global health in 2019 (WHO). The WHO lists “complacency, inconvenience in accessing vaccines, and lack of confidence” as contributing factors to the hesitancy of individuals to get vaccinated, despite the fact that “vaccines are one of the most cost-effective ways to avoid disease” (WHO). Since the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken up nearly every way of life across the globe, I would venture to say that complacency will not play as big of a role in the vaccine hesitancy surrounding a COVID-19 vaccine; however, the potential financial inaccessibility of the vaccine for some underserved communities as well as the skepticism of anti-vax individuals will largely play a big role.
As one individual stated, the anti-vax movement is primarily driven by fear and the belief that “Once you give up rights to your body, the government owns you” (Martin). This perspective is thus less of a public health or safety concern, and more of a worry over individual rights and bodily autonomy. Protest and political activism are an art form that the anti-vax movement is no stranger to. One anti-vax mother storming the California state capitol compared her protest march to “MLK and the civil rights movement,” as they sung the famous anthem of the movement, “We Shall Overcome,” a statement and choice that State Assemblywoman called “misappropriation…[and] actually one of privilege and opportunity” (Lapin).
The COVID-19 pandemic has also seen its fair share of anti-vax protesters, who have been communicating their defiance and spreading misinformation about the virus, calling COVID-19 “a lie” and claiming that “hospitals are not overwhelmed” by the pandemic.
The numerous doctors, scientists, and public health officials speaking up about this clearly has made little-to-no headway in convincing these skeptics of the efficacy of a vaccine, but another group of professionals might—art is a medium of educational delivery that is appealing to the masses and has, in fact, been used in the past to galvanize people to vaccinate. In 2015, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched The Art of Saving a Life initiative, in partnership with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Comprised of photographs, sculptures, music, visual art, and films created by 30 artists, this initiative served “to demonstrate how vaccines continue to positively change the course of history” (Gates Foundation). From liver cells affected by smallpox and whimsical illustrations of children’s books to fashion of healthcare workers and sculptures of vaccines depicted as a “love serum,” this initiative highlights the rich history of vaccine development and its critical nature for the health of the world.
As for financial accessibility, there is an initiative put on by The Center for Artistic Activism called “Free the Vaccine for COVID-19.” The objective of this project is to “ensure publicly-funded diagnostic tools, treatment, and the COVID-19 vaccine will be sustainably priced, available to all and free at the point of delivery” (The Center for Artistic Activism). As federal and state political and financial systems are already being sapped of their capacities, it is important for other groups, such as this activist organization, to step in. I am interested to see how this organization, on a smaller level, will complement other initiatives on a national and international scale.
Next, I will explore the University of Rochester’s AIDS Education Posters. This was an initiative that happened during the HIV/AIDS crisis in the late 1900s, and featured short, simple messages that were made personal through real-life photos. These posters are an example of public-facing memorabilia that can quite easily be disseminated to the public. Finally, Cimaza Virology Comics creates multi-lingual cartoons that can communicate more content than one single poster. This can be captivating, particularly for younger audiences.
I will conclude my paper with a proposal about the ways in which art can be utilized in the COVID-19 pandemic in order to educate anti-vaxxers about the importance of vaccines, using the lessons drawn from previous artistic endeavors. For example, comics are a great way to reach a wider range of audience members (in terms of age). In regards to accessibility, murals can be effective because of its general public locations (and because they’re more likely to garner attention than smaller posters, especially because people don’t go out as much during shelter-in-place and thus will have less of an opportunity to see posters). Additionally, digitalizing these posters and making them into an advertising campaign can potentially be beneficial. Finally, video advertisements that are not political in nature (in order to not alienate any one group of individuals).
COVID-19 will not and cannot be effectively combatted without a safe, effective, and widespread vaccine (Yamey). The key to this is galvanizing all tools on all levels, from grassroots to government, to educate others about the necessity getting vaccinated and to generate a vaccine that is financially accessible to all.
The Center for Artistic Activism. “Join Us & Free the Vaccine for COVID-19.” The Center for Artistic Activism, 2 Apr. 2020, www.c4aa.org/2020/03/join-us-free-the-vaccine-for-covid-19
Cimazia Virology Comics. “Virology Comics.” Cimazia. www.cimazia.be
Gates Foundation. “The Art of Saving a Life Project.” The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Jan. 2015, www.gatesfoundation.org/Media-Center/Press-Releases/2015/01/The-Art-of-Saving-a-Life-Project
Lapin, Tamar. “Anti-Vaxxers Are Comparing Themselves to Civil Rights Activists.” New York Post, New York Post, 19 Sept. 2019, www.nypost.com/2019/09/18/anti-vaccine-protesters-are-comparing-themselves-to-civil-rights-activists/
Martin, Brittney. “Texas Anti-Vaxxers Fear Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccines More Than the Virus Itself.” Texas Monthly, Texas Monthly, 18 Mar. 2020, www.texasmonthly.com/news/texas-anti-vaxxers-fear-mandatory-coronavirus-vaccines/
Thompson, Dennis. “Why Will It Take So Long for a COVID-19 Vaccine?” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, 7 Apr. 2020, www.usnews.com/news/health-news/articles/2020-04-06/why-will-it-take-so-long-for-a-covid-19-vaccine
University of Rochester. “AIDS Education Poster Collection.” University of Rochester Libraries. https://aep.lib.rochester.edu/
WHO. “Ten Health Issues WHO Will Tackle This Year.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 2019, www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/ten-threats-to-global-health-in-2019
Yamey, Gavin. “To End This Pandemic We'll Need a Free Vaccine Worldwide.” Time, Time, 15 Apr. 2020, www.time.com/5820963/end-pandemic-free-vaccine-worldwide/