If We’re Going to Be Swimming Upstream in Debunking Coronavirus Nonsense, Let’s Be One Another’s Life Vests

There is no possibility of unity as the vegan community divides into factions that promote dangerous misinformation and those who do not.

Credit: Edvard Munch “Boys Bathing”; RawPixel.com

he last six months have been such an unsettling experience for all of us that we’d probably need to come up with a new word for unprecedented if it and its synonyms didn’t already exist. The spread of the novel coronavirus alone would be enough to cause people to lose their bearings — with the unexpected, prolonged financial consequences, the sudden uncertainty and loss of normalcy, the threat to our mental, emotional and physical health — but the upheaval doesn’t end there. One of the most jarring and disorienting aspects of the fallout around COVID-19 for me has been learning how many people I considered part of my larger vegan community have embraced and started spreading misinformation and disinformation about this deadly, highly transmissible disease.

There are numerous messy and hybridizing camps of deniers, down-players, truthers and theorists, a many-headed Hydra: one camp will claim that the coronavirus is a hoax or it’s exaggerated; another is busily pursuing their doctorates at YouTube University and is inclined to recommend “cures” as well as casually float conspiracies that would cause Alex Jones to put down whatever he’s huffing and take notice; yet another camp will make unsubstantiated but strangely confident claims about what makes someone less susceptible to contracting the virus or impervious to it altogether. Often it is an incoherent jumble of allied strategies and stances, and if you tug on one strand, you will see that it is connected to all these other threads. Almost all camps will tell you to “do your research” when challenged, which is shorthand for “I watched some janky, discredited videos and read some garbage without proper citations and you should do the same.”

It is clear that there is no shortage of opinions with regard to the coronavirus, its origins, what to do about it or even if it is real. That is to be expected about anything discussed online, especially when so many of us are consuming lots of media and spending more time on our laptops and devices than usual. It’s not shocking that people in general would add their two cents to the tumultuous racket around this upheaval but it has been devastating to see how many vegans are using their platforms and their voices to propagate embarrassing woo, half-baked conspiracy theories, sanctimoniousness and sheer quackery, much more aligned with the tinfoil hat brigade and merciless Objectivism than a liberation-minded social justice movement.

This historic moment — when millions have been infected, hundreds of thousands will soon have died in the United States alone, the long-term health effects to survivors may be profound and the virus continues advancing with no signs of receding— is when some vegans instruct people to start investigating urine therapy or re-direct to supposed paper trails that claim to prove that a shadowy cabal is behind the “plandemic” mishigas?

Have we had a collective leave of our ability to discern reality from fantasy? When vegans should be shining a light on a path that helps us avoid the next zoonotic disease, shouldn’t we have the discipline and commitment to the greater good to not indulge in random paranoid delusions?

This mindset, this loss of rationality and critical thinking, is a different kind of virus, one that is just as treacherous.

As a journalist, I am someone who is accustomed to spending hours researching so I am fully aware that there are indeed clandestine machinations behind the scenes designed to make industries more profitable, often aided and abetted by governments that actively collude, look the other way and contribute to violence. Whether it is the undergirding of the meat and animal products industries by the USDA, for example, or the unwillingness of governments and the candy industry to work to eradicate child slavery in West African chocolate production, I am not so gullible as to trust the official word on much, yet that is what the COVID-19 deniers, down-players and truthers would have you believe based on my interactions with them.

Implicit in the rallying cry of the altogether-strange-yet-somehow-fitting bedfellows of anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, anti-maskers, yoga enthusiasts, spiritual seekers, gun obsessives and paranoid right-wingers — the ones that exhort the “sheeple” to “WAKE UP!” — is the message that if we’re not believing crackpot notions of microchips and tracking devices, cabals and laboratory-manufactured viruses, it’s because we’ve been indoctrinated. (Whether the virus was deliberately or unintentionally released is up to the theorist, but one thing I have learned is that they will nimbly jump to a different premise once the original one no longer serves their narrative.)

In a way, this upswell of junk theory promoters is perfectly in keeping under a U.S. president who was known for his fixation on birtherism but it’s still distressing to see how easily people can be swayed by this dangerous nonsense. Perhaps vegans, knowing all-too-well how our tax dollars are used by the government to prop up exploitative industries and how much cruelty happens outside of view, are more susceptible than the average person to believe in widespread and far-fetched conspiracies.

Or maybe critical thinking isn’t as important to some as a deep-seated belief in nefariousness.

Despite its association with bunny huggers and emotionality, veganism is an exceptionally rational, clear-eyed philosophy and practice. (Honestly, though, I would be happy to hug any bunnies that would have me.) It is good for the animals not born into suffering, torment, and violence, obviously, and also beneficial for human health, the health of communities and the planet. According to the EAT-Lancet Commission Summary report, an international commission of scientists, a drastic reduction in animal flesh consumption and increase in plant-based replacements — in short, a completely transformed food system — is necessary for a livable future.

As for the accusation of being emotional, it any wonder vegans can be thought of in this way? We know the industry-wide brutalities — from standard mutilations to forced impregnations, permanent separations between parent and baby to very short lives compared to their natural lifespans — inflicted on billions of innocent, sensitive animals each year and we feel compassion for them. It’s understandable that people advocating for these animals, knowing how unnecessary it is to exploit and eat them as well as how destructive it is to our precious planet, will be passionate and, yes, emotional. We are not automatons. Emotions aside, though, the principles of veganism are rational, cogent and grounded in objective reality. Veganism is not crackpottery.

This is all to say, if you encounter a vegan who claims the coronavirus isn’t real or you can just get rid of it with a little vitamin D with a urine chaser (and, hey, while you’re at it, did you know the moon walk was staged by a Jewish cabal???), please know that this is not a reflection on the validity of veganism.

It is a reflection on this individual.

I’d be lying if I said that I am not well-versed in the callousness and irrationality of some vegans at this point.

On the last day of February of 2019, my husband, who has been vegan for 25 years, was diagnosed with leukemia. It was sudden, shocking, aggressive and terrifying. We are so lucky he survived and got into remission, as well as survived his bone marrow transplant, which his doctor recommended to try to avoid a recurrence. His care has meant suppressing his immune system so it would not fight the new stem cells. It is a complex treatment with many moving parts, but it has meant that he is at least temporarily immunocompromised.

My husband who has worked every day for a more compassionate, clean and just world since I met him in 1993 — according to some in the movement he helped to build, he should just die because masks and modern medicine offend their sensibilities?

very day, I see more and more people contending that not wearing masks is equally valid to wearing them with regard to the coronavirus, that they are just two different opinions, equally valid. No, not true. Allowing opinion and conjecture a seat at the same table as the most current professional consensus about a highly contagious disease means that propaganda wins and people die. Opinions, speculation and cherry-picked nuggets stripped of crucial context do not deserve to be at the same table with rigorous, careful yet decidedly unsexy research. It belongs at the table of make believe, hokum and delusion, and any conversation that insists fiction be given equal consideration to facts at a time of a global health crisis legitimizes recklessness and kills people.

Works of fiction are great on a stage, in a book, on a screen. Not so much when it comes to deadly pandemics.

When I see vegans promote conspiracies around the coronavirus, people I consider part of my broader community whether I know them in person or not, I feel despair. Not just for the loss of community, not just for the cruel indifference directed at millions of people like my husband, but for the association of veganism to paranoia, irrationality, flakiness and preposterousness. When veganism is made questionable because of associations with people who trust sketchy YouTube videos over objective, observable reality, the animals suffer for it and a vegan future becomes more out of reach.

If you are going through a similar feeling of loss in all this, please know that there are many of us, swimming upstream in all this, and we should be life vests for one another. Allow yourself to grieve and experience the sadness of this time and the disappointment so you can move through it. It is another loss during a time of profound loss. Lean into the ones who are on the side of nuance, safety, responsibility and taking care of each other.

Let’s link arms and keep one another afloat.

Marla Rose is co-founding partner of VeganStreet.com and VeganStreetMedia.com. Please follow on Medium to get updates when each new article is posted and find us on Instagram.

Marla Rose is a Chicago-area writer and co-founder of VeganStreet.com and VeganStreetMedia.com.

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