When I read anti-vax posts by ‘wellness’ advocates, what I see is ableism. Here’s why – ABC Everyday

I was doom-scrolling during my lunchbreak when I came across the Facebook post.

In it, an acquaintance proclaimed that she was blissfully relying on her “natural immunity” as her defence against COVID-19 — and was encouraging others to do the same.

She listed a bunch of ‘wellness’ practices she’d been trying – taking turmeric supplements, for starters – and declared that by “putting the work in”, she’d boosted her natural immunity against the virus.

‘At first I was surprised, then I was furious’

At first, I was surprised that I had someone in my friends list that would have these views. Then I was furious.

I was furious, because like approximately 18 per cent of Australians, I’m disabled. I have chronic health and pain issues, which render me in constant pain and more often than I’d like, barely able to move. The medications I’m on to manage my condition mean I’m immunocompromised.

I was fortunate enough to have my first COVID vaccine in June, but it’s currently not safe for me have a second one.

I’m tired of unqualified influencers spreading the message that relying on “natural immunity” instead of vaccines is a moral high ground. It’s not just moral superiority, it’s ableism.

‘Building natural immunity’ won’t save us from COVID

In case I need to state the obvious, the argument that simply “working on your natural immunity” to combat COVID-19 (by buying herbal supplements – or by doing breathwork, adopting a keto diet or other wellness trends) fails to launch.

Supplied: Katie Brebner Griffin

If COVID-19 was able to be held off by natural immunity, not only would we not be in a pandemic in the first place, but hospitals all over the world would not be buckling under the strain of caring for patients who are critically ill with the virus.

Also, if diet and lifestyle changes were natural cures, I wouldn’t be disabled (and I probably wouldn’t know anyone else with disability, chronic illness or pain, either).

In reality, while a healthy diet and lifestyle does benefit people’s health, improvement in overall wellbeing doesn’t equate to a cure-all.

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Choosing not to vaccinate? Check your privilege

The irony of the situation is pretty plain. All of the wellness influencers that I’ve seen on social media, who are encouraging tolerance to differing views on vaccination and imploring people to “do their own research” on them, benefit from vaccination themselves.

Although they may not choose to vaccinate themselves or their children, they live in high-income countries like Australia, where the resources are available and used to actively prioritise vaccination against preventable diseases.

Whether they like it or not, they are relying on the high vaccination rate of the general population to never expose their children or themselves to diseases like polio, they are just doing so by choice. To make such a choice, without a legitimate medical reason, is the epitome of privilege.

Speaking of privilege, Many of the wellness types promoting “natural immunity” have benefited from financial access to healthcare, healthy environments, education, and financial resources to improve their health — factors that directly impact a person’s health status. They’re lucky they can access those resources and systems. Others are not so lucky.

Let’s not forget that the ability to adjust diet and lifestyle factors — only buying organic food, for example — also requires access to the necessary resources to do so; it’s far from an accessible, easy option for everyone.

The problem with saying some people aren’t ‘putting the work in’

One of the key components of the ‘natural wellness’ anti-vax messaging is the premise that if people “put the work in” through diet and lifestyle changes, they too will be able to rely on their natural immunity to survive COVID exposure or infection and emerge in a good state of health.

The suggestion that healthy lifestyles cause positive outcomes with COVID is the essence of ableism. It implicitly points the finger of blame at people with health issues or disabilities for not “doing the work”.

Adobe Stock: Cultura

If people can’t have a healthy lifestyle, or struggle with COVID infection they have not done something wrong and aren’t worth less than anyone else.

Frankly, I don’t know of a group of people who put more effort into their health than disabled and chronically ill people.

The never-ending effort involved to navigate a world which is not designed for you at a structural level, is a constant grind. Let alone the work of organising, getting to, attending, and paying for the numerous appointments — if you can get one in the first place or afford to go at all.

Even with all the effort in the world, many people won’t ever have a clear bill of health, and to suggest this is possible is perpetuating ableism.

If you’ve had a great experience with your health efforts, natural or otherwise, I’m genuinely happy for you, but please don’t assume that everyone’s experiences of health are the same.

Providing ‘natural’, anti-science health advice to the masses is especially dangerous in a pandemic, but also propagates the ableist belief that if disabled and chronically ill people tried harder, they would be ‘fixed’.

Such people are already disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Please don’t make it worse by encouraging people to play roulette against a deadly virus.

Katie Brebner Griffin is a former nurse with a Master of Public Health, and is a researcher with UNSW’s Centre for Social Impact. Katie advocates for people with chronic illness and explores her experiences through art. She can be found on Instagram and Twitter at @ohkdarling.

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