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Thursday, July 27, 2023

RFK Jr.’s conspiracy theories about Covid put Black people at risk

RFK Jr. is exploiting his family's good name to put my people at risk

Kennedy and his right-wing allies remain intent on misleading and dividing the American people under the guise of free speech.

As Americans contend with the lingering effects of the Covid pandemic, another threat persists: the swell of anti-vaccination rhetoric. With the worst of the pandemic seemingly behind us, vaccine misinformation continues to spread mostly unchecked among the most at-risk populations.

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Even more disconcerting, influential figures, including presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., are using their platforms to lend credibility to the anti-vax movement and, thus, undermining the health and well-being of our communities. Given the broad-reaching impact of such dangerous discourse, particularly on the Black community, the urgency to counter anti-vaccine rhetoric and promote sound public health initiatives cannot be overstated.

Kennedy’s prominence as an environmental attorney and his family’s legacy of civil rights advocacy have given him an outsize influence on the anti-vax movement. In his newly preferred role as an anti-vaccine advocate, he peddles Covid conspiracy theories and perpetuates scientifically debunked assertions linking childhood vaccines to autism. As evidenced during Thursday’s hearing of the House Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, his allegations are not just fundamentally flawed, but also intended to fuel skepticism and vaccine hesitancy.  

Despite the Biden administration’s best countermessaging efforts, Kennedy’s disinformation campaign has proven resilient. Parents radicalized by anti-vaccine conspiracy theories are rejecting routine immunizations for their children because of fear and mistrust of the public health system. If this worrisome trend continues, the United States is at risk of losing herd immunity for infectious diseases that were largely eradicated decades ago.

The dangers of Kennedy’s anti-vaccine rhetoric are even more pronounced for the Black community, a demographic already disproportionately affected by Covid. While historical injustices contributed to Black Americans’ mistrust of Covid vaccine initiatives, anti-vaccine rhetoric not only fed on those fears, but also deliberately exploited them. Among Black Americans, the contagion of misinformation reinforced hesitancy, and the historical distrust of government institutions eroded confidence in lifesaving vaccines. The consequences have been alarming: lower vaccination rates, higher infection rates and a devastating disparity in health outcomes.

In fact, data shows that at the height of the pandemic, Black Americans were dying of Covid at three times the rate of white Americans. The pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated existing health disparities, but the deliberately fabricated anti-vaccine falsehoods championed by Kennedy continuously threaten to further deepen those disparities.

In the face of this misinformation onslaught, there is an acute need for credible information from reliable sources. Not just from public health officials, but also from each one of us, particularly those of us in positions of influence. We must counteract damaging narratives with accurate, accessible information while empathetically addressing legitimate concerns. That is how we begin to actively build trust with those we serve and empower them to make informed decisions about their health.

With public health under siege, vaccines remain our best defense against infectious diseases. And despite Kennedy’s public anti-vaccine stance, a 2021 letter from his attorney reveals that he vaccinated all his children and has himself received vaccines as an adult.

Inviting Kennedy to serve as the star witness in last Thursday’s hearing was a distraction, another failed attempt by House Republicans to divert attention away from their failures of leadership. By the end of his contradiction-riddled testimony, one thing was certain: Kennedy and his right-wing allies remain intent on misleading and dividing the American people under the guise of free speech. Together, they orchestrated attacks on federal agencies, launched senseless accusations of censorship and played on Americans’ fears of government overreach and corruption.

We need leaders who respect science, put antics aside and put the American people first.

But we have an opportunity to turn the tide by replacing mistrust and skepticism with understanding. In the fight against misinformation, we are armed with truth — about the safety and efficacy of vaccines and the importance of prioritizing public health over politically expedient rhetoric.

Kennedy’s complicity in spreading deliberate falsehoods exposed a callous disregard for public health. As we continue to confront the vaccine misinformation epidemic, we need leaders who respect science, put antics aside and put the American people first. With an increasing number of undervaccinated young children, the U.S. is more vulnerable to flare-ups of communicable diseases in other parts of the world. By curbing anti-vaccine rhetoric, we have the potential to positively impact the health landscape in this country. We have a responsibility to our most vulnerable communities to act now.

Stacy E. Plaskett

Stacey E. Plaskett represents the United States Virgin Islands’ at-large Congressional District in the U.S. House."

RFK Jr.’s conspiracy theories about Covid put Black people at risk

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