It’s not unusual to meet people with alternative beliefs at a Sufi meditation course on a rooftop in Ubud. But when a mild, vaguely apologetic Australian woman in her mid-50s explained to me that she was responsible for her own breast cancer because she had repressed her needs and her sexuality and this repression had manifested itself as cancer in her breast, I thought: “Far out.”
It was 2014 and the woman had been staying at a retreat centre nearby, submitting to a range of alternative therapies in a last-ditch attempt to stay alive after her cancer had spread.
Her belief that she had caused her own cancer made her feel regretful and guilty, but conversely, as she explained, it also meant she might be able to reverse her diagnosis if she worked on her emotional problems.
That emotional problems caused physical illness was a common belief in the nascent wellness industry of the 1980s and 90s. Louise Hay, the mega seller behind You can Heal your Life, pushed the line that various diseases signified a personal defeat – for example, rheumatoid arthritis meant “feeling victimized. Lack of love. Chronic bitterness. Resentment” and asthma was a result of “feeling stifled. Suppressed crying.”
Such obviously crackpot theories could be dismissed with a laugh, except Hay’s books were wildly popular, selling more than 30m copies worldwide.
Years later I still think of the terminally ill woman in Bali and feel angry that she had signed up for such bullshit – and that she had wasted what was likely to be the final months of her life blaming herself for her illness.
You don’t hear much about Louise Hay today, but trace elements of her philosophy survive when it comes to the wellness industry and Covid.
There is the belief that we can control our bodies and that a powerful natural immune system is the best defence against Covid, not a vaccine.
After resisting the notion that Covid is even real (the so-called “scamdemic” or “plandemic”), now those who push conspiracy theories are holding their nerve, this time arguing that vaccines are either dangerous, part of a plot by Big Pharma to increase profits, or not for well people who have strong immune systems.
When this corner of the wellness industry refuses to be vaccinated, it is not primarily out of fear of the vaccine’s side effects or because it was developed too quickly, but more likely comes from a place of arrogance: those who are well don’t need the vaccine because they have Rolls Royce immune systems. Instead the only people who get sick and die from Covid have a pre-existing illness, or are in some way physically deficient, or have succumbed to the immune system-weakening emotion of fear.
A theory sharing some of these tenets found popular expression recently on the (now deleted) LinkedIn post of the head of a US salad chain, who said he was vaccinated himself and supportive of people being vaccinated: “78% of hospitalizations due to Covid are obese and overweight people. Is there an underlying problem that perhaps we have not given enough attention to? … no vaccine nor mask will save us.” That is, eat enough salad (take personal responsibility FFS!!) and you won’t need a vaccine. After a public backlash, he first apologised to his staff and then in a new LinkedIn post.
In the unedited version of an interview with 60 Minutes posted to YouTube in 2020, chef Pete Evans, a notable antivaxxer, also touted the sovereignty of a pure immune system: “And am I fearful of Covid-19, if I came into contact with anybody [who has it]? No I’m not, because I believe in who I am and my ability to stay as healthy as I can through anything.”
More recently a Byron-based wellness influencer came under fire for a post published on the day of anti-lockdown protests that argued “Remember science is a THEORY, just like magic.”
Instead she advised to, “look after your physical health and optimise your immune system with herbs, breathing exercises, organic foods. Start to grow your own food. Learn about soil.”
Dr James Rose, a social anthropologist at the University of Melbourne, told me last year that a sense of superiority can pervade the identity of conspiracy-based communities. He said identity can be reinforced when you position yourself above others “and Pete Evans and his community are very explicit about it – they believe they are better, more pure, that they are fitter and more active than other people.”
The feeling of superiority can also mean that people who attack the ideals of the group are dismissed as unevolved or “sheeple”, an arrogance which prevents meaningful debate or dissent.
But from Hay to the current crop of social media wellness influencers, there is a common thrum of neurosis underneath the bravado: that is the need to feel in control.
The ultimate irony is that fear is running their show. It is frightening to think you can get cancer regardless of how healthy your diet is, or that you can get Covid, no matter your BMI. The randomness of illness – and the ultimate certainty of death – is far too frightening for some to contemplate. So they rely on a fiction which makes them feel safe, superior and unconsciously immortal. Hay’s fiction is this: stop acting like a child and you’ll cure your kidney problems. Her wellness counterparts today say eat organic food, do yoga, don’t consume the mainstream media, and you won’t get sick from Covid.
They think they’re special, and that we – the vaccinated – are the ones that are afraid; but fear runs deep through these communities.
Ben Lee – an Australian musician who straddles both worlds – put it well. “The arrogance of some antivaxxers is just a grasp for control. One of the epiphanies the Buddha had when he left the palace is that people get sick and they die. It’s a reality – we get sick and we die, and we cannot handle that. And so people often prefer to think: good people don’t. The good people eat good organic food and have strong immune systems and don’t get sick.”
The overseas experience shows that Covid is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated. The disease doesn’t care if you eat organic or not.