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'It's a conspiracy': What goes on in the minds of anti-mask, anti-vaccine groups? (Pt 1)

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TOKYO -- In Japan and elsewhere, there is a group of people who do not believe in the existence of the coronavirus, and refuse to wear masks or get vaccinated. This crowd also urges others to follow their example. A "nationwide simultaneous no-mask picnic day" was planned to take place across Japan during the "Golden Week" holiday period, but it prompted a severe backlash which forced organizers to cancel it. What exactly is going on in the minds of these anti-maskers? The Mainichi Shimbun examined this question in a two-part series.

    On the night of April 23, when the state of emergency was issued in four prefectures, including Tokyo, a gathering of an anti-mask, anti-vaccine crowd was held in the Koto Cultural Center in the capital. A Japanese YouTuber and anti-vaccine icon based in Germany made an online appearance at the film screening event.

    This reporter paid an admission fee of 3,500 yen (about $32), and attended the event myself. There were some 500 people in the venue, which was almost full. Both the man in front of me and the woman seated diagonally behind me did not have masks on.

    Koto Cultural Center in Tokyo's Koto Ward, which was used as the venue for a documentary screening event among anti-vaccine individuals, is seen in this image taken on April 23, 2021. (Mainichi/Sumire Kunieda)

    I asked a young man without a mask on before heading inside the venue, "If an infection cluster occurs at this hall, won't you feel responsible?" He then answered, "If you're scared, I think you just shouldn't come here. Are you able to prevent infections by wearing a mask anyway?"

    The woman who sat next to me ignoring a sign indicating that the spot be left open as part of social distancing measures took off her mask, which made me nervous. After the man who hosted the film screening called on attendants to wear masks as "it will be a problem if we get banned from entering and leaving the venue," many people put them on reluctantly, but 10 to 20% of people still remained without a mask on.

    The documentary film that was shown followed a German psychotherapist who was informed by a friend that 13 individuals passed away in an elderly care home in Germany during a period of 25 days following coronavirus vaccinations. The woman is seen without a mask on when she visits the city hall to investigate the truth. The cameraman does not have a mask on either. They must be among individuals who are opposed to vaccines and regard them as dangerous, and the documentary itself must be propaganda. Anti-vaccine crowds refuse to acknowledge the coronavirus' existence as well as the need to wear masks.

    The documentary narrated that one resident at the elderly care facility tested positive for the coronavirus in a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test three days after they received a vaccination shot, and infections subsequently increased one after the other. However, I had doubts surrounding this. It should be natural to assume that the cause of the numerous deaths of the elderly residents was a result of not vaccines, but a group infection where residents happened to contract the virus at around the time they were vaccinated.

    However, the venue's atmosphere was different. The organizer stated clearly that "you'll die if you get inoculated." The YouTuber who appeared on screen also stressed, "It hasn't been proven that the coronavirus exists, and there have been 7,752 deaths in Europe due to side effects of the vaccine."

    An event organizer offers explanations on a screen with descriptions on how to persuade others to not receive vaccinations at Koto Cultural Center in Tokyo's Koto Ward on April 23, 2021. (Mainichi/Sumire Kunieda)

    In Europe and the United States, conspiracy theories surrounding vaccines have been on the rise. A typical such claim is "The coronavirus does not exist. Governments and the media are making a fuss in order to vaccinate the public. The vaccine contains a microchip, so people will be monitored and controlled by the government." There have also been conspiracy theories that claim that the coronavirus is a "bioweapon created in China" or that "Bill Gates is in the background of the spread of the coronavirus."

    A person who attended the film screening even asked, "Is the Japanese government ordering that people take social distance measures in order to make it easier to monitor the public?"

    The event organizer emphasized that "this meeting's purpose is to draw in people who were unaware into the anti-vaccine movement." The anti-vaccine crowd and conspiracy theorists believe that they themselves have been enlightened with the truth, and that the general public is "unaware of" this truth and is controlled by the national government and the media. The organizer showed specific methods to persuade family and friends on a screen, and provided an explanation.

    The organizer explained to first use the theory of "going back to the beginning" when trying to persuade individuals: "To begin with, have you seen coronavirus patients with severe symptoms around you?" The next piece of advice is to present specific numbers, such as "The ages of people who die of the coronavirus is no different from the average life expectancy."

    "The last resort is threatening. This works the best," said the organizer. They suggested using phrases like "the vaccine will rewrite your DNA." The organizer wrapped up their explanation by saying, "Administrative bodies and trash media outlets are full of cheaters and pressure people into using dangerous vaccines. If so, it's OK to use intimidation a bit over the top to protect loved ones."

    People are seen calling for coronavirus vaccinations to be halted in front of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in Tokyo's Kasumigaseki district on Feb. 24, 2021. (Mainichi/Sumire Kunieda)

    On Feb. 24, shortly after vaccinations for health care workers began, eight anti-vaccine protesters were seen in front of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in Tokyo's Kasumigaseki district. They were chanting, "Vaccines are dangerous. Please call off the inoculations." A flyer they distributed contained the description, "mRNA vaccines will be administered to humans for the first time. The safety of these inoculations is of great concern as they're different from previous ones."

    The description is factually correct, but the speech bubbles in the illustration next to the description is incorrect. They say, "What, genome editing will take place inside the human body? What the heck is that?" and "I don't want to end up turning into some genetically modified cyborg!" Parts of the virus' messenger RNA (mRNA) are used in vaccines, and it is not that the virus will be reproduced inside the body. Moreover, mRNA will be obliterated in around 10 days at the most.

    Although members of the anti-vaccine movement claim that "in the United States and Europe, which have taken the lead in coronavirus vaccinations, several thousand individuals have died due to side effects," this is not true either.

    The United States has the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), whereas Europe has EudraVigilance, which are database systems where individuals and health care workers register adverse health conditions that appear following coronavirus vaccinations. Although it is true that over 3,000 deaths have been reported via VAERS from December 2020 to April 30 this year, among cases registered are instances that have not yet verified a link between the vaccination and deaths. Fatalities caused by a deterioration of diseases, and other factors unrelated to side effects of the vaccine also get registered into the systems.

    Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the United States had recorded about 8,000 deaths per day, and Japan's daily death toll was about 3,800. As the daily death toll is quite high as it is, it's not unnatural for there to be people who happen to die on the same day as they're vaccinated or the following day, for unrelated reasons. This is why careful decisions must be made regarding causal relationships with the vaccine.

    A flyer distributed by a group that called for the suspension of coronavirus vaccinations in front of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare is seen in this partially modified image. (Mainichi/Sumire Kunieda)

    I approached an elderly man who was gazing at the anti-vaccine crowd protesting in front of the health ministry. The 77-year old man said, "I do see where they're coming from. Even if I call the health ministry (to ask about coronavirus vaccinations), they keep referring me to different departments, or play an automatic message saying, 'The line is busy at the moment, so please call back after a while.' It's not a toll-free number, so it costs money. Even if a connection is made, they just tell me to look at the website as the answer is there. The government doesn't listen to the public's voices and has no plans to do so."

    The man continued, "The media is also rubbish. I don't like the coverage regarding U.S. presidential elections. The United States have turned leftist. What's happening in Washington is the same as what's happening in Japan. Listening to statements during Diet sessions makes me irritated."

    To my astonishment, the man also believed the conspiracy theory that former President Donald Trump's defeat was the result of election fraud.

    Conspiracy theories usually escalate while taking advantage of distrust toward governments, the media, and systems such as parliament. Many of the conspiracy theories and false information regarding coronavirus vaccines flow into Japan from the United States and Europe. When I visited the U.S. to report on the presidential elections last autumn, I came face to face with fake information and fears of growing conspiracy theories. (Continues to Part 2)

    (Japanese original by Sumire Kunieda, Digital News Center)

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