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opinion

In dealing with the peculiarities of our friends and family, it used to be pretty easy to draw a line between the dangerous and the merely flaky.

If they started extolling the charms of a cult leader or talking of the firearms they were stashing in the basement for the coming dark times, then alarm bells would sound. But if they went on about the poisons sold by mainstream Western medicine or the lies peddled by the corporate media or the brainwashing offered by the education system or the threat of globalist elites or the cures and spiritual values of ancient times offered on Gwyneth’s website – well, that wasn’t dangerous. It was just woo.

A bit of woo was considered a colourful eccentricity, not a threat to our common wellbeing and security. That’s because it’s often middle-class people with good jobs who get into woo (sometimes known as “woo-woo,” if you’re not into the whole brevity thing; imagine the music that plays when a flying saucer appears in a 1950s movie).

Something alarming has happened in recent years, though: woo has gone global. It has linked up with more ominous currents – as we’ve seen in two alarming crises this winter.

The first involves the end of this global pandemic. In an extraordinary feat, the COVID-19 virus genome was sequenced by the end of January, 2020, and several laboratories developed and fully tested effective vaccines within months, making full immunity in 2021 a possibility. Manufacturing and delivery has proven a bottleneck – but an even more serious obstacle is the shocking number of people who have come to believe that vaccines are somehow dangerous.

In some countries, such as Russia, Poland and France, barely more than half the population say they would get a safe COVID-19 vaccine if it were available. And only three quarters of Canadians and two-thirds of Americans told pollsters they intend to be vaccinated. Those are ominous figures – if you don’t get upward of 80 to 90 per cent of people inoculated, mass immunity won’t take hold.

Vaccine refusal has been a known problem for several years. We’ve seen the re-emergence of long-dormant child-killing diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella in wealthy countries because a significant number of people aren’t getting their kids vaccinated – usually because they believe long-discredited fallacies about vaccines being dangerous or causing other diseases. They no longer trust doctors, or government experts, or media reporting – they’ve sought alternatives in the world of woo.

After a deadly measles outbreak in California in 2015, researchers found the disease’s reappearance was rooted in the refusal of mainly well-off, white parents to have their kids vaccinated; the highest refusal rates were in private schools. In Toronto, the highest rates of vaccine refusal due to parental beliefs – often more than 10 per cent – were found in the city’s student-directed “alternative” schools, which tend to have high-education, high-income parents whose neighbourhoods often feature holistic-medicine shops and homeopathy clinics.

The second crisis exploded into the headlines on Jan. 6, when those most deeply involved in the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol turned out to be more prosperous, educated and female than the usual crowd of Donald Trump supporters. Their pathways to insurrectionary violence often came through the QAnon conspiracy theory, which holds that mainstream government, political and media figures are enmeshed in a bizarre plot involving mind control and pedophilia and that Mr. Trump is a saviour who will seize government and end it. A major pathway to QAnon has proven to be the “wellness” and alternative health and parenting movements.

Marc-André Argentino, a scholar at Concordia University, has documented the phenomenon he calls “Pastel QAnon,” which grew influential within “lifestyle influencers, mommy pages, fitness pages, diet pages and alternative healing” internet forums. Amelia Johns, a faculty member at the University of Technology Sydney, found that conspiracy pages often were literally pastel-coloured, and shifted from alternative-medicine material to opinions that express “very pro-Trump views or are explicitly racist and anti-Semitic.” Last year the writer E.J. Dickson documented the extensive links between the natural-childbirth and natural-parenting movements and QAnon and other violent anti-government plots. They are drawn together because they share what one expert told her is “that distrust of the medical environment combined with a real lack of scientific understanding.”

Woo may often be harmless flakiness by itself, but it’s supported by a set of community-rejecting beliefs that endanger all of us. The solution begins at home. We need to make it clear that this stuff is socially unacceptable. If your favourite form of wellness makes us all unwell, you’re no friend of mine.