• Kalila Welch

Out, Loud, Unvaccinated and Proud





Hand-painted signs are dotted through the sparse crowd of protestors. The glass towers of the central business district glisten in the sunlight as the crowd streams into Hyde Park, an iconic inner-city oasis of greenery and extravagant civic monuments. They’ve gathered here today in opposition to the federal government’s announcement of a national vaccine rollout.

For the organisers of the protest, an alternative media publication known as ‘Australians VS The Agenda’ the turnout may be underwhelming. According to a 7 News article, the event’s Facebook page received interest from over 5000 users, most of whom are nowhere to be seen. Those who did show up are an eclectic mix of lifelong anti-vaxxers, COVID-sceptics and conspiracy theorists. Though the messaging is mixed and sometimes contradictory, their position is clear: the vaccine is bad news.

Australian flags are waved proudly by protestors as masked police officers circle the group. Leaders of the movement take turns to address the crowd, leaning into powerful rhetoric of resistance, freedom and justice.

The atmosphere livens with cheers, clapping and the metallic clashing of what sounds like pots and pans become increasingly louder.

PETE! PETE! PETE!” the crowd’s chants become deafening as Pete Evans prepares to address the protestors. Celebrity chef turned alternative health influencer; he is the poster boy for the anti-vax movement.

“Thank you…thank you” he quiets the cheers, standing on a small black box raised less than a metre from the ground. He is dressed simply in a dark t-shirt and khaki pants, barefooted and unconstrained by society’s conventions.

“I’m very humbled at the welcome, thank you very much.” Pete pauses to absorb the crowd’s admiration.

“To be honest with you, I don’t have the answers, you do. No one’s coming to save you, except you. Each and every one of you has to stand up in whatever capacity you can…”

The first of many anti-COVID vaccine protests ran smoothly, if somewhat unimpressively, on a clear-skied Saturday in late February last year. More than one year into the COVID-19 pandemic and by this point already 2.53 million people globally had lost their lives to the deadly virus, according to figures by Our World in Data. The June lockdown in Sydney was the breaking point. As case numbers rose uncontrollably and spread across NSW, vaccination became the clear escape route for a state in crisis.

But, as vaccination rates rose and the state slowly transitioned out of lockdown a small cohort of anti-vaxxers remained steadfast in their position.

Now, as the highly contagious omicron variant has brought the state’s daily case numbers above 30, 000, vaccines have been credited for keeping our health system from toppling over into complete crisis. Yet, it still remains unlikely that those who have chosen to oppose the science will be convinced.

Troy is as ‘true blue’ as they come. He’s lived his entire life in the Central West, where he started his videography business. His hometown of Orange encompasses the best and worst of rural NSW. Rolling hills decorated with vineyards, fine dining restaurants serving local produce and treelined streets that turn shades of red, yellow and orange through the cooler months. Job shortages, soaring house prices, a struggling agricultural industry. It’s the kind of place where city-living government figures are seldom held in high regard.

We meet in Troy’s single-car garage, a make-do home office. It’s 9 pm and he’s just gotten back in from a live cross that ran 2 hours overtime. Professional-grade lighting sets and camera gear sit haphazardly stacked alongside a crowded desk. Cords dangle precariously from black camera cases, snaking off into the shadowy corners of the small room. The space is dimly lit aside from a harsh spotlight illuminating the man’s face. Troy will spend most of his night here, waiting for a crackle on first responder radio frequencies, hope held out for a newsworthy tragedy. A fire, a car crash, a bad storm. He’ll rush out to capture the scene for the networks. Many nights are fruitless, but he can’t risk missing the opportunity for his next paycheck.

Troy slumps down into his chair, savouring the few hours of rest he will get before his 4 am call time the next day. With little prompting, he opens up about his past. A child of domestic violence and alcoholism, he was exposed to disfunction at an early age. He learned the extent of life’s cruelties as a teenager when his sister was diagnosed with skin cancer at just 17.

“My sister died in 1989. She was 19, I was 16. And the treatment you got for cancer back then is the same treatment you get now and hasn't changed at all” he says gruffly, his rural inflection slurring his words slightly.

The inability of modern medicine to save his sister left Troy sceptical of the health sector. His doubts were confirmed years later after his mother was diagnosed with bowel cancer. A doctor at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital told him all he needed to know.

“His exact words were ‘we keep them alive as long as we can because we get paid more.’ There's more money in it. Everything's about money.” Troy’s jaw tightens as obvious contempt surfaces on his squared, unshaven face. His mother passed away from her diagnosis just over 10 years ago.

Troy’s scepticism was easily extended to the COVID-19 vaccines. His concerns stem from alternative media content he’s seen on Telegram. The instant messaging platform has been co-opted by alt-right leaders to broadcast information to eager consumers in the wake of a harsher misinformation policy on Facebook.

“Well, from off my studies, there’s something like 13 trillion spike proteins per injection.” Troy pauses, staring ahead under the brim of his cap. “One of the guys, he used to work for Pfizer. He done a video and he explained what the spike proteins do.”

Troy is referring to Michael Yeadon, a pharmacologist who, according to an article by Reuters, worked as a Vice President of Pfizer up until 2011 when the company exited his area of research. Despite his credential’s, he’s been widely discredited by his former colleagues for spreading vaccine misinformation. But, for the anti-vax movement, he is a hero.

Before he can continue, Troy is interrupted by a kelpie puppy that has bounded into his office from the main house. Still only small, the puppy has been spooked by thunder rumbling in the distance.

‘Megan!’ he shouts coarsely to his partner for help, gently batting the puppy away.

“What he says about the spike proteins, this guy…” Troy takes a moment to regain his thoughts. “And basically, what they do is in your vascular system - all your veins and everything - basically it chugs them up and sticks to the inside walls of your vascular system and it activates your body’s clotting mechanism.

He likens the vaccine to an injection of millions of micro blood clots. According to Troy, these blood clots are undetectable until they eventually reach the lungs and become bigger blood clots.

“Basically, by reducing the size of your vascular system – the veins and arteries- what it’s doing is putting back pressure on your heart, and he’s predicting mass heart failures within about two years.”

Troy pauses to look over his shoulder, concerned by the worsening storm. He turns back and raises his voice above the growing patter of the rain.

“If you put a kink in the hose after you turn it on and it’ll pop off or break where it joins onto the tap. Basically, that’s what your hearts doing when ya chugging ya vascular system up with all these spike proteins” he explains, like a school teacher might explain a simple mathematical equation to a struggling student. Before he has the chance to re-explain his prized metaphor, hail starts to bucket, and we end our meeting abruptly.

Several days later, as Troy drives home from work, he tells me that the COVID-19 virus could be the first part of a global conspiracy to release a killer vaccine upon the masses.

“We’re up to 7 or 9 billion people. They've got to thin it out by like, 70%. What's the vaccine number that they want? What's the percentage they want people vaccinated? It's not 100%, is it?”

Troy’s point here reflects one of the dominant conspiracy theories found among the more evangelical anti-vaxxers. The theory goes that all vaccinated people will eventually die of side effects, leaving unvaccinated elites to rebuild a better society. Anti-vaxxers believe they are saving themselves, and their loved ones, from this fate.

A week later, Troy rants to me about the discrimination and oppression experienced by the unvaccinated. He likes to compare the current settings in NSW to historical genocides, like the Apartheid and the Holocaust.

“There's no need to be signing in and letting Hitler know where you are,” he says sarcastically, in a somewhat misplaced joke. But he’s on a roll now.

“They even like to control the number of animals and they do it around the world you know, they want to control, control, control. That's what it's about.” Troy laughs maniacally, launching into a new point about government coercion. His train of thought can be difficult to follow.

But most bizarrely, Troy is quite content with what he calls the ‘segregation’ of the vaccinated and unvaccinated. He uses the term lightly, oblivious to its historical weight.

“I absolutely love the idea that it gives them two months to prove that the vaccine’s useless and they can't blame the unvaccinated people.” He laughs righteously, like a pastor waiting for the non-believers to meet their fate in hell.

Concerns about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines are the first point of call for any anti-vaxxer. Anecdotes about the dangers of spike proteins are a particular favourite. However, it’s an issue that’s dispelled time and time again by the science community. According to the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, mRNA vaccines like Pfizer contain the genetic code for the SARS-Cov-2 ‘spike protein’ that is copied by the body’s cells to ‘train our immune system to recognise and fight’ the virus. Vector vaccines, like AstraZeneca, work similarly, except that the genetic code for the spike protein is carried in by a ‘harmless common cold virus’ that has been modified to prevent it from causing infection.

Critically, there’s no evidence that spike proteins have any long-term effect on the body. A 2021 study published by the Oxford University Press found that while spike protein levels increased in the initial days following the first dose, they were gradually destroyed by antibodies, and were undetectable by the time of the second dose. Of course, health officials have acknowledged links between the AstraZeneca vaccine and a rare blood clotting syndrome. However, according to NSW health, the chance of dying from a blood clot after the first dose of AstraZeneca is less than 1 in a million, compared to a 42,000 in a million chance of dying if you develop COVID-19.

Born and bred in regional NSW, Andrew is an awkward, eccentric man who talks quickly and chuckles often. His hollowed face is framed by a bushy ginger beard and long hair tied back into a ponytail to keep it out of his eyes. Up until recently, Andrew had spent most of his life living nearby his parent’s house in his hometown of Orange.

He leans back into the couch as his partner Emma potters around the house in the background. Their small second-floor apartment has the feel of a home that is not fully settled, just a few months after moving up north to Port Macquarie. The move was a practical one, for the benefit of Emma’s 5-year-old daughter whose father had moved up to the area earlier in the year.

He’s not a particularly political man; he’d always voted for Labor, like his parents before him. But lately, he’s been feeling disenfranchised. In reality, he feels neither of the major parties offer him much benefit, and he’s not really about sticking to the status quo for the sake of it.

“I haven't been vaccinated; my partner has” he gestures towards Emma.

“She's just had her first shot, goes in for the second shot... I think it's a few weeks away or something” he says casually.

But for Andrew, getting the vaccine was never an option. He isn’t sure if he believes theories about side effects, but he’s not willing to completely write them off. Instead, he plans to wait it out a couple of years and see what happens.

“Yeah, there's nothing forcing me to get it, other than people telling me I should. This person over there.” Andrew points at Emma, grinning. Despite Emma’s gentle nagging, he insists he is at no risk from the virus, nor the restrictions.

An employee of essential retail at a liquor franchise, Andrew can continue to work, vaccine-free. He serves the local butcher’s, stocking up on beer for his housebound, unvaccinated father. He keeps liquor bottles stacked high on the shelves, to the pleasure of the locals. And when it finally comes to break time, he rushes straight to the back dock to remove his face mask. None of his colleagues seem to care.

Outside of work, Andrew has no qualms about being stuck inside. A stranger to his new hometown, he’d rather stay at home. He’ll be happy to wait until freedom opens up to everyone. But he does find it hard to grapple with the intricacies of the restrictions.

“It's like, all these little rules and stuff they brought out, they don't make any sense other than just to try and keep people confused of what you can and can't do.”

Even though he couldn’t care less about hitting up the local shops, or having a drink at the pub, he finds the whole state of the restrictions depressing. “Yeah, you kind of think, is there something to this? Yeah, like this segregation thing. And this treating some people different than others.”

Since the lockdown ended, the anti-vax rhetoric has gotten stronger in Andrew’s circle. He tells me that back in Orange, anti-vaxxers are pushing back against restrictions. A Facebook group called ‘Central West No Passports Required’ has emerged in response to what nearly 2000 members see as ‘medical discrimination’. Inside, businesses that oppose government restrictions promote their services to the unvaccinated masses. Andrew likes to read through the debates on the page. He reckons he’d be more involved if he was still living in the community, but he’s still happy to throw in his 2 cents where he sees fit.

Contrary to views that COVID-19 vaccine mandates are unprecedented, newspaper clippings since the time of federation reflect a long history of pro-vax legislation in Australia. According to a newspaper clipping from The Advertiser in South Australia in the year 1900, vaccination of infants was compulsory under the law, with the failure to comply resulting in prosecution by the local vaccination officer. But just as long as vaccine mandates have existed, so have anti-vaxxers.

Some early opposers of vaccination sought indemnity from these laws based on their stance as ‘conscientious objectors’, for personal reasons that stretched from religious reasons to health concerns not dissimilar to those seen in the present day. An article in Melbourne’s Weekly Times in 1886 describes a demonstration against smallpox vaccination from a group that, according to the author ‘will not give credit to facts and statistics’. Thirty-four years later, a letter to the editor of another South Australian publication, titled ‘The Quackery of Vaccination’ argued that the smallpox vaccine was nothing but a ‘grotesque superstition’. Of course, smallpox was eradicated globally by 1977, thanks to the World Health Organisation’s vaccination program.

Dominic is a man of captivating contradictions and idiosyncrasies. In his late 20s, he is outspoken, but gentle, like a puppy in a play fight, testing how much he can nip without ending the game. Dark curly brown hair frames a kind face and large brown eyes. Acquaintances have described him as opinionated and outspoken, but unwaveringly polite. Even when speaking on his political views he seems cautious to offend.

Dominic fiddles with his zoom settings. He’s leant over his desk, arms folded, squinting his eyes in concentration. He quickly straightens as he realises the camera is on and shuffles nervously in his chair. Sunlight peaks out from the drawn curtains behind him, just as grey as the room itself. He looks away from the camera, thinking carefully before he speaks.

“I don’t have a very interesting life. I have lots of interests. But I’m a kind of, I don’t know… Um a bit, not cerebral but um I like to listen to different podcasts and stuff and sci-fi books and I’ve got some friends in the area which I made.”

Politically, he describes himself as being very conservative, which he admits is unpopular amongst many of his peers. His traditional views seem to contradict a fairly progressive upbringing in Sydney’s inner-city suburb of Chippendale. Raised by a single mother who was an activist in city planning, he explains that up until his mid-20s he was fairly leftist, just ‘without all the snark’.

The conversation moves to his views on the vaccine and he reveals, almost in a tone of guilty admission, that he won’t be getting it, despite being vaccinated for other viruses in the past.

“This seems very different” Dominic starts, looking down. “Doesn't last long, doesn't seem particularly effective. It only is meant to reduce the effects if you get it. But you still spread it, still kill Granny.” He shakes his head disapprovingly.

“You hear on alternative media here a lot of very scary stories, from people who don't look like scary story, alternative media figures.”

Dominic describes ‘respectable figures’ in the alternative media: doctors, nurses, scientists – who have been discredited by the mainstream. He blames the fact that their stories ‘go against the narrative’ being pushed by the ‘establishment media’.

While he’s careful not to commit to any of the major conspiracy theories surrounding the vaccine, he is hesitant to completely write them off.

“Sometimes, to be honest…” he lowers his voice, smiley coyly, “it is kind of fun to like, hear these conspiracy theories? So-called conspiracy theories, because it’s kind of scary how many of them are coming true. Yeah. Okay, I know it sounds really bad.”

A highly educated man, and government employee, toying with the idea of conspiracy theories feels counterintuitive for Dominic. But still, his controversial views are something he has lost friends over, and would willingly sacrifice his job for.

“I think a lot of people are naïve.” Dominic shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “I think they're just very trusting and they just do exactly what they're told, basically. Including rousing on anyone who doesn't go with the flow and blaming them for what the government's done to us.” His words linger, painting an ‘us and them’ storyline where the government plays the villain.

“The strategy of the rollout seems to me to be very … I know it’s a cliché, but very authoritarian to me” Dominic looks at me cautiously, as if to gauge a response. “I mean, some people don't seem to have a choice at all.”

For Dominic, the threat of tyranny is very real. The grandchild of immigrants from the Second World War, German on his mother’s side and Greek on his father’s, distrust of authority is second nature for him. He recalls his relationship with his German grandmother fondly. She had told him of her childhood under the rise and fall of the Nazi regime, during which she lost her mother to madness and father to a Siberian labour camp. Dominic tells me she instilled in him the importance of freedom. He learned that ‘losing control of your own life and so being subjected to an authoritarian government, doesn't often go well for you if you're just a normal person on the street’. And for many anti-vaxxers, this seems to be the basis of their fears.

For Dominic, a global crisis like COVID-19 has given global leaders the chance to implement new policies that serve ideologies very different to his own.

“I would say, I think there's a certain culture amongst people in big sorry, in big corporations. And also, in I suppose the government bureaucracy. You know, people are generally very progressive, and have these sort of, this sounds cliche, but kind of, they do come across a little bit Marxist, sometimes ‘Marxist’ Marxist, and sometimes just sort of champagne socialist Marxists, which is also annoying.”

To him, the ‘new normal’ is a scary place to be.

Of all my conversations with anti-vaxxers, all had one thing in common: fear. Fear of the unknown; fear of the supposedly ‘known’; fear of change; fear of control. Even with evidence that could be seen by many as tenuous, their concerns are undoubtedly genuine. They don’t want to lose the world in which they have lived and thrived, up until this point.

In an interview with a source who wished to remain unnamed due to his fears of his business suffering from his views, one man told me, in great exasperation, of his reluctance to lose hope and give up his freedom to say no to the vaccine.

“I have to believe in the good of humanity, and I have to believe that this will be turned over, it will be overturned. So, the people, the people that are in government now will be held to account. I'm really hoping they get criminal charges, but I don't think they will. I think they'll just be kicked out of office. But I honestly believe that there's enough people, not the majority, but there's enough people with common sense, good has to prevail. If good doesn't prevail, what's the fucking point of life?”


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