If I were a Chinese or Russian or Iranian spy, here’s what I’d do.
I’d recognize that healthy citizens are critical to a nation’s ability to project its economic and military power, and then I’d try to make my enemy sick.
One thing I’d look at is vaccines.
I’d recognize that vaccination programs greatly improve the overall disease resistance and health of a society, extend the life expectancy of citizens, and improve economic output and defense readiness.
Then I’d set aside a relatively small pot of money to fund covert operations to undermine public trust in these important medicines and the institutions that recommend them.
I’d start with the general population in my target country, going after people of lower education who feel socially marginalized and who’re looking for a reason to reject institutions and domains of knowledge.
I’d get these people to fear vaccines and distrust the authorities that recommend their use. To do this, I’d offer up a variety of manipulated data and talking points to make people feel better-educated than they actually are.
Next I’d put pressure on the nation’s elite, forcing politicians to bow to the misperceptions of their under-educated, angry constituents. Eventually some of the elite would believe the propaganda as well.
Outbreaks of preventable diseases like Measles would begin to appear in my target country. But I wouldn’t crack open the champagne just yet.
That’s because my ultimate goal would be to debilitate my enemy’s military, forcing its immunization policies and research to come under such intense criticism from the public, politicians, and soldiers themselves that vaccinations would be declared optional for new recruits.
Not only would this leave my enemy’s military vulnerable to outbreaks and affect readiness domestically, it would leave deployed warfighters on the battlefield vulnerable to basic bioweapon attacks using preventable diseases.
If you think protection against biological threats isn’t a big deal in the world of national defense, think again.
In Israel, for example, a single soldier infected with Measles entering a base in Tel Aviv in December 2018 set off a panicked attempt by the Israeli Defense Forces to contact hundreds of potentially affected soldiers and determine their vaccination status before the disease could spread through the ranks of the military.
In the United States, the readiness of our military and the productivity of our population may already be under threat from foreign anti-vaccination (“anti-vaxx”) propaganda.
And if I were a Chinese or Russian or Iranian spy hoping to spread such crippling propaganda, I’d find no greater ally than President Donald Trump, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, who has a history of making anti-vaxx statements going back to at least 2007.
A few days shy of being sworn in as President in January 2017, Trump was walked back from the anti-vaxxer edge after a meeting with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a vaccine skeptic who said that Trump had appointed him to head a commission on “vaccine safety.” Fortunately, the commission never materialized.
Today the President spends a lot of time cheerleading the nation’s race to find a vaccine for COVID-19, but his promotional efforts are primarily intended to keep the stock market afloat.
Indeed, the President has done very little to psychologically prepare Americans for the massive task of deploying a vaccine when, and if, it becomes available. This is because such an effort would alienate his base of conspiracy-loving, mainstream-news-hating, anti-government ideologues.
In fact, by attacking the news media and public health experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci as well as downplaying the threat posed by COVID-19, the President and his allies have increased skepticism about the U.S. public health system and its recommended practices in a way that’s highly advantageous to America’s enemies.
To my knowledge, no link between our foreign adversaries and anti-vaccine propaganda has been found, and yet I’m stunned that this does not seem to be a question anyone in the media is asking.
We know countries such as China, Russia, and Iran consider the United States an adversary and that they’re looking for ways to damage us economically, politically, and militarily.
The question of whether hostile foreign actors have originated and amplified anti-vaccine sentiment is even more important now that the global coronavirus is raging.
Not only does the anti-vaxx movement pose a threat to any society hoping to take advantage of a COVID vaccine to achieve immunity, but the basic rhetorical strategies of anti-vaxxers have been adapted to fuel the denialism central to the American “COVID truth” movement — with disastrous and tragic results.
The head-scratching rise of the “COVID truth” movement, whose apostles are active every day on community social media boards like Facebook and NextDoor, as well as in national debate spaces like Twitter, take their cues from extreme right-wing commentators and conspiracy theorists — including President Trump.
They question basic public health measures like mask-wearing and social distancing, manipulating statistics and data to make COVID-19 seem like no big deal.
They suggest that the hardworking men and women of U.S. public health agencies like the National Institutes of Health aren’t primarily focused on saving American lives.
They claim that COVID-19 all a big conspiracy by hospitals to charge sick people for ventilation services they don’t need.
They may even go so far as to absurdly believe that COVID is a Democratic “hoax” despite the global impact of the virus.
There’s clearly more going on here than just a bunch of bored and angry right-wing American patriots watching Tucker Carlson and then getting on social media to share what they’ve “learned” about COVID-19.
There’s money, organization, and discipline behind the suicidal turn America took in May 2020 with the rise of “COVID truthers” pushing to reopen America at any cost.
It’s homegrown corporate and political astroturfing at best.
At worst, it’s astroturfing boosted and validated by foreign actors.
Do our adversaries benefit while hundreds of Americans die preventable deaths alone in hospitals after failing to take COVID-19 seriously enough?
You bet they do.
Not only does our American carnage distract the world’s attention from the fact that China lied about the virus and failed to control it in the first place, but it allows the Chinese government to point to our democratic model as a failure while elevating their own single-party system as a success story.
The Russians, Iranians, and other foreign adversaries of democracy benefit in similar ways.
To combat the criticism of its perpetually restive populace, for example, the Iranian government can defend its negligent response to COVID-19 by credibly pointing out that it fared no worse than the great United States of America.
It takes no leap of the intellect to assume that — like a judo fighter analyzing his opponent’s strengths and turning them into weaknesses — our adversaries have analyzed America’s strengths and realized that the worship of American freedom and individualism, when pushed to its grotesque extreme, can become a sort of society-be-damned selfishness and a militant psuedo-intellectualism.
Unfortunately the damage has already been done, and it will take a massive generational effort to return our society to a point where common-sense public health measures are once again generally accepted for the common good.
Unless the originators and boosters of anti-vaxx and “COVID truth” propaganda can be minimized and overruled, any attempt to create a robust vaccination program in America will fan the flames even further.
While “COVID truthers” surely believe their opinions are in line with American principles such as capitalism, individual freedom, and distrust of government, by spouting their nonsense about masks restricting the flow of oxygen and lying about the overall fatality rate for the virus they have nevertheless aligned themselves with America’s enemies, who are even now celebrating our country’s confusion and weakness in the face of COVID-19.