In the spring of 2020, however, Katie’s boyfriend started adopting some new viewpoints that concerned her. As the world locked down and people panicked over the threat of the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus, Keith’s online wellness mentors were telling him there was nothing to worry about. Under their influence, he started questioning whether or not COVID-19 was real. Or if it could be caused by something other than a virus, like 5G technology. Masks didn’t make sense to him, because he believed that the real defense against illness was individual immunity. But he was most suspicious of the COVID-19 vaccines then in development, fearing they would be thrust upon him against his will. “He believes strongly in his right to sovereignty over his own body,” says Katie. Keith stopped trusting science and mainstream media, all because of what he was learning on Instagram.
- Drew Ramsey, MD, psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University
- Matthew Remski, yoga practitioner, author of Practice and All Is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, and Healing in Yoga and Beyond, and co-host of the podcast Conspirituality
Katie’s boyfriend is one of many who have latched on to the COVID-19 conspiracy theories peddled by some holistic practitioners and influencers. These fringe figureheads occupy all spheres of the wellness space—they’re doctors, biohackers, yoga instructors, and spiritual guides. The one thing they have in common: When it comes to COVID-19, they generally evangelize pseudoscience while demonizing mainstream science and facts.
So how did a large sect of prominent wellness experts arguably begin sabotaging their followers’ well-being—and that of society as a whole?
A brief timeline of COVID contrarianism
COVID-19 conspiracy theories began percolating soon after many U.S. states issued initial lockdown orders in March 2020. It was then that holistic psychiatrist Kelly Brogan, MD—a former frequent Goop contributor (the brand has since removed her content) and antidepressant opponent with over 125,000 Instagram followers—posted a video falsely claiming that there’s no proof germs lead to illness and, as such, “there is potentially no such thing as the coronavirus.” Confident, calm, and well-spoken, Dr. Brogan assured her followers there was nothing to fear but fear itself; and, of course, the nefarious players in the government and pharmaceutical industry responsible for the COVID-19 “hoax.”
Around the same time, women's holistic health expert Christiane Northrup, MD, veered from the usual set of topics she posted about on Facebook (like holistic fertility—she’s an OB/GYN by training) for a new series of videos entitled "The Great Awakening.” In these missives, she, too, questioned the reality of COVID-19 and told her over-500,000 followers they were safe as long as they “chose love over fear.”
Confident, calm, and well-spoken, Dr. Brogan assured her followers there was nothing to fear but fear itself; and, of course, the nefarious players in the government and pharmaceutical industry responsible for the COVID-19 “hoax.”
The COVID conspiracy tipping point, however, came on on May 4, 2020. This is when film producer Mikki Willis quietly released a video titled "Plandemic" to social media. It found its way into Facebook groups dedicated to QAnon, a group of conspiracy theorists alleging, among other disproven claims, that an underground cabal of pedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring and that former President Trump is working to take them down. The film mainly featured interviews with discredited scientist Judy Mikovits, who believes that the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine are being used by powerful people to control the masses. It quickly went viral, amassing nearly 2 million views before it was de-platformed by social media companies just days after its release.
The ideas in “Plandemic” quickly filtered down from fringe wellness, alt-right, and QAnon spaces to more mainstream wellness influencers who began to share them with their followers—people like Katie’s boyfriend.
Thus spread an array of easily debunked but salacious theories that have united two very different factions—a conspiratorial crop of green juice-drinking “coastal elites” and MAGA-hat-wearing, far-right extremists. Some claim the pandemic is fake, and that complying with any safety protocols is "submission signaling" to shadowy, powerful people like celebrities, the government, or the scientists who “created” the pandemic. Some say that COVID-19 symptoms are the result of 5G mobile networks. Those who acknowledge the virus is real, meanwhile, say that death tolls are inflated, or that no one with a healthy immune system should fear COVID-19. Many conspiracists or deniers claim that masks don’t work, can actually make you sick, and/or are signaling to those in power that you’re willing to be controlled.
And now that vaccines (which are, unfortunately, already a controversial topic in some wellness circles) have arrived as society’s great hope for a return to relative safety, they have become the latest target of anti-establishment wellness prophets. In December, Dr. Northrup told her followers that the COVID-19 vaccine would "remove human empathy." Dr. Brogan’s husband Sayer Ji, meanwhile, consistently posts anti-COVID-vaccine content to his social media channels, recently labeling a photo of fruits and vegetables as the real COVID-19 vaccine. And influencer Ali Zeck, who has over 100,000 followers, has claimed that no true wellness devotee would champion vaccination.
While this may seem baffling—how can someone urge others to, say, avoid processed foods in the name of good health, and then advise against wearing a mask to protect oneself and others from a virus that’s killed over 500,000 people in the United States in one year?—the leap from one to the other is actually not as big as it may seem.
Why some wellness devotees are primed for COVID-19 denialism
The modern wellness movement originated as an alternative to "conventional medicine" because people were finding it difficult to get their needs met by the health-care system—especially in America.
When people who are sick or in pain can’t find remedies for their ailments through the health-care system—especially when they can’t afford the cost of treatment or their symptoms are persistent, vague, and difficult to diagnose—they frequently turn to so-called "alternative" treatments, many of which have been used around the world for centuries and some of which also have plenty of scientific research backing their benefits. (Think meditation and acupuncture.) “People have been forced to adopt self care as a kind of gospel, because nobody's going to take care of them otherwise,” says says Matthew Remski, co-host of the Conspirituality podcast and a cult dynamics researcher.
Of course, there is a place for holistic health in the fight against COVID-19. An integrated approach to mitigating harm during the pandemic, for example, would include not just wearing a mask and social distancing, but also prioritizing diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management to give your body its best chance against illness. Both conventional medicine and holistic medicine can be valid at the same time, and viewing them as standing in opposition to one another prevents true well-being.
But disillusionment with mainstream medicine has led some to question all things tied to science, full-stop.
But disillusionment with mainstream medicine has led some to question all things tied to science, full-stop. A subset of people in this camp then brought the same skepticism to information about COVID-19. But as Remski points out, they're taking it to dangerous extremes—for instance, using cherry-picked data to claim that masks “aren’t actually about protecting people from infection at all, but rather they’re symbolizing something else.” (To be crystal clear, these claims are not true.)
COVID contrarianism also reflects another problematic belief held by certain segments of the wellness world: that health is an individual responsibility, maintained through certain diet choices and lifestyle habits, and therefore illness is to be blamed on the ill. Some who align with this thinking believe that if you’re in the 45 percent of the U.S. population with a comorbidity that makes you more susceptible to severe COVID-19 infection, such as hypertension or diabetes, it's your fault and it’s nobody else’s responsibility to protect you with a mask or a vaccine. In wellness circles there’s a deeply embedded belief, Remski explains, in health as a moral virtue. “If you’re weak or infirm or disabled, then you’re failing at the meritocracy of bodies,” he says.
Never mind that this is a privileged point of view that fails to take into account poverty, racial inequity in health care, and other social determinants of health largely outside of people’s control that make them more predisposed to COVID-19 comorbidities. “[Just] because they're struggling with their health, that does not mean that they deserve to die of this virus,” says Drew Ramsey, MD, integrative psychiatrist and author of Eat To Beat Depression and Anxiety.
The “conspirituality” factor, explained
If a person’s entire ethos stands in opposition to science-based medicine, then it follows that they’re naturally primed to reject all information about a pandemic that comes from epidemiologists and other scientists. This leaves them looking for other perspectives. And if an alternate perspective is more palatable—for example, that “choosing love over fear” will make the whole COVID problem go away—it can be hard to resist. "When reality is unpleasant, it opens the door for a lot of other opinions that sound better," says Dr. Ramsey.
Indeed, many COVID-19 conspiracy theorists’ arguments have New-Age spiritual overtones. This is nothing new: The term “conspirituality” first appeared in a 2011 article published in the Journal of Contemporary Religion, and it basically describes a growing overlap in spirituality and conspiracy theories. The common thread? Humanity is undergoing a paradigm shift, and a secret group of dark forces is trying to stop it.
It's a lot to unpack, but philosopher and author Jules Evans posits that if an individual believes that divine forces are calling people to become enlightened and lead the way to a utopian “New Earth,” they may also be prone to believing in a darker version of this—the idea that worldly (read: human) forces are attempting to keep us oppressed and divided.
Dr. Ramsey notes that it can be hard to be on the side of COVID reality, where masks are necessary and plans are cancelled, especially when the alternative is so much sexier. Why choose the team advocating for a challenging new way of life when you can instead join the one opting out of those hardships in the name of nobly fighting nefarious forces? “It’s giving people a tribe to be affiliated with, which I think is causing a lot of them to be radicalized,” Dr. Ramsey says.
This explains, at least in part, why some spiritual devotees’ messages have shifted from “we are ascending in consciousness to make the world a better place” to “a global cabal is trying to control and kill us.”
The appeal of charismatic influencers over bummer science and boring doctors
Clearly, people’s personal experiences and beliefs around wellness and spirituality can make them more susceptible to COVID-19 conspiracy theories. But there’s another factor that’s made the wellness space ripe for brainwashing: a culture of magnetic influencers-as-experts.
"Most of the prominent COVID denialists in the wellness space are used to making their living as charismatic performers [rather than medical experts]," Remski says. "They don't have a history of submitting themselves to peer review or working through clinical trials...They've spent a long time training to offer their aspirational products in an unregulated environment. Now that's happening in a really dangerous context."
"Most of the prominent COVID denialists in the wellness space are used to making their living as charismatic performers [rather than medical experts]."
—Matthew Remski, host of the Conspirituality podcast
In many cases, the initial connection between wellness influencer and follower formed due to shared anti-mainstream beliefs—of which COVID contrarianism has become an extension. As was the case with Katie’s boyfriend, these influencers have built up trust with audiences that have never held them accountable for evidence to back the diet, fitness, or lifestyle advice they post. So why would they now begin asking for proof to back their COVID-19 claims? It’s not so much of a leap from liking a post about toxic ingredients found in cleaning products to liking a post about the “toxic” effects of wearing a mask, after all.
Plus, watching a radiant health coach reassure you that the stressful reality of COVID is not real can be far more enticing than listening to a non-telegenic epidemiologist explain the nuances of in-progress science. Influencers often use more assured—and comforting—language than you might hear from a scientist or epidemiologist. The latter tend to frame their conclusions with statements that leave room for uncertainty, such as "studies show" or "research indicates." (Scientific language purposefully hedges in this way because research is ongoing and the scientific landscape is ever-changing.) The former tend to speak in absolutes, as if there is a truth, and they are its bearer. They tell their followers not to trust authority figures, while at the same time positioning themselves as authorities.
Compounding the issue, algorithms utilized by social media platforms favor polarizing content, and the most controversial (and extreme) ideas are often amplified with likes. This echo chamber makes it even more difficult for many to discern between trustworthy and untrustworthy sources.
Why the wellness world needs to take COVID denialism seriously
As we await a slow and imperfect return to some semblance of safety from COVID-19, it can be tempting to listen to the selfie sermons that assure you it’s okay to return to normal life now, free of masks and fear. These wellness evangelists are certain, while science is still learning. Their enemy is visible; science's enemy is invisible. Their plan to defeat it allows you to hug your elderly grandparents and blame shadowy strangers; science's plan asks you to abstain from the human contact that feeds your soul in order to care for those you’ve never met. We believe in these conspiracies because we want to believe in them.
But make no mistake: As COVID deniers beg us not to fear the virus, they are peddling their own brand of fear. They want us to stop worrying about illness, but start worrying about a global conspiracy aimed at ridding us of our freedom and bodily autonomy. Comparisons between COVID-19 guidelines and Nazi Germany are often invoked to heighten this fear. "So on the one hand, it's [not okay] to be afraid of things like germs...but you better be afraid of [pro-vaccine] Bill Gates," Remksi says.
While fringe wellness rallies against the imaginary—secret cabals and empathy-eliminating vaccines—science has the potential to slowly and steadily improve our COVID-era reality. Public health measures like mask-wearing, social distancing, widespread testing, and contact tracing have been proven to reduce the spread of the virus, and countries which quickly employed, broadly adopted, and strictly enforced these tactics have experienced far less death and disruption than the U.S.
But here in America, the world’s wellness-industry epicenter, more than 500,000 people are dead due to COVID-19. That, to at least some degree, is a number unnecessarily inflated by denialism. Because, while it's true that individual lifestyle choices and holistic measures are important determinants of a person's overall health and well-being, in an unprecedented situation in which ICUs and morgues have been filled beyond capacity, the immediate solutions recommended by the majority of public health experts need to be heeded.
"If you are in a car accident and you break your hip and your femur, you want a brilliant orthopedic surgeon. If you're dying with COVID, you want an ICU," says Dr. Ramsey. Ultimately, he says, “The nicest thing you can do for your immune system is make sure it doesn't get exposed to a huge dose of this very deadly virus.”
*Names have been changed.
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