Anti-Vaxxers & Activists: Celebrities on COVID-19

Media provided by Editor-in-Chief, Ava Andrews ’22.

When it comes to COVID-19 protocols, like wearing a mask and maintaining six feet distance, many people — namely affluent, powerful figures — circumvent those rules. Consequently, figures opposing COVID-19 regulations have received backlash from their followers and from the ceaseless and scrutinizing thread of media that follows. 

Their outspokenness has induced serious implications for their careers, a consequence modeled by Prime Minister of the U.K., Boris Johnson, and Serbian tennis champion, Novak Djokovic. On the other hand, renowned folk musicians of the 1970s, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, have used their platforms to condemn those who break COVID-19 protocols and enable the spread of misinformation. In each of these cases, the responses of those involved with each individual are indicative of the diverse approaches and attitudes towards the regulations introduced by COVID-19. 

In May of 2020, a time when fear surrounding the virus was especially rampant, essential workers risked their lives to save infected patients and care for the elderly while Boris Johnson ignored the protocols set in place by his parliament to host “bring your own booze” parties at 10 Downing Street, Johnson’s office and residence. On Nov. 30, the Daily Mirror released a report about his work party which involved over 100 invitees. The story gained a lot of initial attention and eventually blew up, following a video of a leaked mock press conference, in which the Downing Street staff made it evident that Johnson’s initial gathering was not a one-time misdemeanor. Many view his actions as disrespectful to the British public, as well as emblematic of the growing number of high profile individuals who believe that they are entitled to ignore the rules that everyone else has to follow. 

Mx. NK Iguh, literature teacher at Grace, attributes this sense of exceptionalism to a “long history of entitlement being given to those who can pay for it” and, in an email to the Gazette, described their lack of surprise at the notion that “wealthy people behave as though the rules do not apply to them.” 

Currently, the future of Johnson’s career is unclear, however, amid plummeting approval ratings, police investigations, and calls for the end to Johnson’s regime, there is tremendous pressure on him to step down from his role as Prime Minister. 

Similarly, in the days leading up to the 2022 Australian Open, Novak Djokovic, who is unvaccinated, attempted to enter Australia with a medical exemption — on the basis that he had just recovered from COVID-19. When he arrived, the Australian border security detained him and transported him to a hotel. In the morning, Djokovic learned that his visa had been canceled. Eventually, during a court hearing that marked Djokovic’s final bid to stay in the country, a three-judge panel finalized a verdict to deport Djokovic, thereby preventing him from competing for his 10th Australian Open title, and obstructing him from surpassing Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in 21 Grand Slam wins. Djokovic’s clash with the Australian government symbolizes the country’s rigid COVID-19 regulations, which, according to an article the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison described in the New York Times as an approach in which “rules are rules” and “no one is above these rules.”

Unlike Johnson and Djokovic, Neil Young has approached COVID-19 restrictions from a different angle, using his platform to express his disapproval of other celebrities using their status to misinform others about the pandemic. On January 24, 2022, Young announced in an open letter that he intended to remove his music from Spotify, due to the platform’s implicit role in “[selling] lies for money.” 

 Mr. Young specifically addressed Spotify’s endorsement of Joe Rogan, host of the “The Joe Rogan Experience,” a podcast that, according to Rolling Stone magazine, has been criticized by scientists, professors, and public health officials for imparting false information about vaccines and the pandemic to impressionable audiences. As Mr. Young describes in his letter, removing his music from Spotify would cut his global streaming income by nearly 60%, yet it is a monetary sacrifice that Young feels obligated to fulfill. 

When celebrities are held to a different standard than “normal people,” there are dangers that extend beyond the threats to the public’s health and the spread of misinformation. As Ms. Alison Cucco, a biology and chemistry teacher at Grace, stated, “[idolizing celebrities] serves to continue to divide people” and raises the question, “is ignorance excusable in a world where we have access to so much knowledge?” 

As governments, citizens, and the courts push back against celebrities’ abuse of power in regard to the pandemic, it is clear that despite many of these individuals’ beliefs, money and power do not always excuse the flagrant neglect of COVID-19 rules.