In the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, locals pride themselves on their reputation for progressive thinking and sustainable living. Before the pandemic, this meant that residents could avail themselves of whale-song healing sessions, and specialists were available to perform reiki on ailing trees. Alternative medicine posed no serious risk to the community at large: only its purchasers might experience non-fatal overdoses of “detoxifying” frog poison or waste money on fraudulent “cures” for serious illnesses. But things have taken a more sinister turn since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. NSW’s regional counterculture capitals have experienced a political awakening, emerging as some of country’s most concentrated and stubborn anti-vaccine communities.
In Byron Bay, Nimbin and similar towns, vaccination rates remain well below the national average. Anti-vaccine leaflets and posters are promoted by local businesses, some of which have refused service to vaccinated customers. It’s an international trend. The organic farming and alternative-education communities have become a base of anti-vaccine sentiment in the Taconic-Berkshires area of New York state, according to Eoin Higgins in the Atlantic. Earlier this year in the UK, a “freedom rally” in mystical Glastonbury was graced with an opening ceremony led by the local shaman.
Bohemian bug-outs off the beaten track have become nerve centres for COVID denialism. It’s easy to see why: these are places where amethysts and ashwaganda are accepted as well-documented cures for illnesses both physical and spiritual.
But it’s not just in these secluded settlements that we can see the overlap between “counterculture” and anti-vaccine politics. In Brisbane the enigmatic People’s Revolution is inspiring dreadlocked dissenters to march for “freedom” alongside far-right agitators. In Melbourne, more than 60 students, staff and family members associated with the deceptively named Fitzroy Community School were infected with COVID in September when the school (which charges around $18,000 a year for a unique program based on “learning webs”) reopened to all students because “the evidence on children getting sick from COVID is pretty much non-existent”. The COVID denialism of the “alternative lifestyle” scene is putting everyone at risk and opening new inroads for the anti-vax far right to exploit.
For some liberal journalists, these developments are a shock. In an opinion piece for the Guardian, Greg Monbiot meditates on the apparent contradictions of our times: “I hear right-on people mouthing the claims of white supremacists, apparently in total ignorance of their origins. I encounter hippies who once sought to build communities sharing the memes of extreme individualism. Something has gone badly wrong in parts of the alternative scene”. But for socialists, this shouldn’t be a surprise.
The kind of “alternative” and “sustainable” living that characterises these communities is not a form of collective solidarity; it’s business-oriented individualism. There’s nothing left wing about taking sanctuary in a community that grows its own organic produce and sells “alternative” health products while the world is racked with famine and climate disaster. It’s no different from the more mainstream business-oriented “solutions” to social problems like selling branded Keep Cups. Even the understandable hostility to big pharma that pervades these circles isn’t progressive. The alternative scene hates pharmaceutical companies, not because they are parasites generating immense wealth from a rampant viral illness, but because they leave little space for “holistic medicine” cranks to cash in on the same crisis.
Throughout the COVID pandemic, herbal medicine pedlars, naturopaths and even yoga studios have made a mint by tapping into the “wellness community” and its focus on “natural immunity”. They have their own branded, for-profit medicines, and they want to sell them despite the lack of effectiveness; their hostility to mainstream medicine is just a marketing gimmick to carve out a space for their product. Dr Isaac Golden, a homeopath operating out of Gisborne, Victoria, claims that “pharmaceutical drug cartels have convinced many politicians that only drugs and vaccines have any effectiveness compared to natural therapies, when often the reverse is true”. His alternative technique is called “homoeoprophylaxis”, taking tiny amounts of the coronavirus and introducing it into the bloodstream, a treatment that is fortunately banned until further notice by Australian medical authorities. As part of his regular service, Golden offers a 30-minute “immunisation consultation” at which clients can discuss their concerns about AstraZeneca and Pfizer for only $60 a pop. A similar approach has been taken by the Peninsula Hot Springs resort, which maintains that “healthy lifestyle practices ... are not only the most effective prevention for viral illness, they are currently also the best treatment”. The prices here are a little steeper, with a facial plus geothermal mineral bathing session setting you back $285.
In some remarkable cases, ecologically minded individualists become full-blown far right race-baiters. In March this year, environmentalists across Europe were shocked when celebrity vegan chef Attila Hildmann began spewing anti-Semitic bile across his substantial social media platforms. Hildmann garnered around 1,500 positive responses to his snap poll: “Do you think Jews are a) human beings or b) lying parasites?”. Our own Pete Evans has drifted in a similar direction, drawing consternation after sharing an overt neo-Nazi meme with connections to the Christchurch massacre.
The far right have long been interested in irrationalist, mystical versions of health care and ecological politics. The esoteric principles of 19th century “anthroposophy” were adopted by the Nazi party as a means to connect the “cosmic significance of racial attributes” with Lebensreform practices of “communal living and non-traditional schooling, whole foods, natural healing ... [and] vegetarianism”. In Dachau and Ravensbrück, Jewish internees tended biodynamic farms supervised by the SS Office of Race and Settlement. In the 1970s, the Italian New Right organised “Hobbit Camps” inspired by J.R.R Tolkien’s racialised romanticism, attracting busloads of hippies to “debates about issues like ecology, health and housing shortages”, Tobias Hof writes in an article for the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. More recently, “deep ecology” proponents have lined up with eco-fascists to push for bans on immigration.
The development of anti-vax politics in these so-called "progressive" circles shouldn't come as a shock. These scenes have long been characterised by individualism, mystical thinking and an eye for a profit. Hippie quacks have always taken advantage of people's justified scepticism about governments and big Pharma. We should oppose them on the same basis that we oppose any unethical and dishonest businesses: they line their pockets with the proceeds of human suffering.