The wellness industry has turned its back against Covid science by using crystals, chakras and conspiracy theories

woman in white shirt sitting on brown and white pillow

Its gurus promote vaccine scepticism and conspiracy theories, as well as the belief that people who are ill are responsible. How did self-care become so vile?

Ozlem Demirboga Carr doesn’t really like all the woo-woo stuff. The 41-year old telecoms worker from Reading says, “I’m definitely full-science type of person.” She doesn’t believe crystals, affirmations, or salt lamps. However, she was able to feel unusually anxious during March 2020’s UK Covid lockdown and decided, like many others, to practice yoga to relieve stress.

She says, “I tried being open-minded and was open to receiving advice on how to improve my mental and physical health.” She followed several social media accounts, including Phoebe Greenacre (somatic therapist, biz coach), who is known for her yoga videos and Kelly Vittengl, who is a “women’s empowerment and spiritual mentor”. The Instagram algorithm worked. She says, “I found myself suddenly following so many wellbeing accounts.”

woman in white shirt sitting on brown and white pillow

Carr noticed posts that bothered her after the Covid vaccine was deployed. These ranged from polite concerns about the social implications of mass vaccination or the politics behind it to outright rejection of the science. She says that the tone and conversation of their posts changed. It was initially about self-care and being a part of a caring community. They began to talk more about the need for vaccine choice. They said things like, “My body, my choice.”

Carr was there as Greenacre posted an Instagram Story describing vaccine passports “medical apartheid.” Vittengl went even further. In a post in July, Vittengl, who is unvaccinated, compared vaccine passports to the social polarisation witnessed during the Holocaust .and spoke about the “mess” caused by the “ideology of the western medical system”. Vittengl stated that “we aren’t being given the whole picture” in a post that Greenacre liked. Greenacre invited Vittengl to her podcast. Vittengl spoke about the dangers of big pharma and celebrated the work Zach Bush, a controversial doctor who was called a “Covid denialism” by McGill University researchers.

These views are not uncommon in the wellness community. They are actually on the milder side of the spectrum. Online wellness circles are filled with anti-vaccine and vaccine-hesitant attitudes. They’re as common as pastel-coloured Instagram infographics or asana poses at sunset on the beach. “People are really confused by what is happening,” says Derek Beres, the co-host of Conspirituality, a podcast about the convergence of conspiracy theories and wellness. “Why is their yoga instructor sharing QAnon hashtags?”

In May, the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) found that just 12 influencers .ere responsible for nearly 65% of anti-vaccine content on Facebook and Twitter. Callum Hood, CCDH says that many of these anti-vaxxers leading in the field are alternative health entrepreneurs. They reach millions of people every day. This is a serious problem. “Vaccine hesitancy is a major obstacle in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Included within the CCDH’s “disinformation dozen” are Joseph Mercola, a US .wellness entrepreneur .called the “most influential spreader of Covid-19 misinformation online” by the New York Times. Dr Christiane Northrup, a wellness expert who helped popularise the notorious Covid pseudo-documentary Plandemic by sharing it with her 560,000 Facebook followers. Kelly Brogan, who is a contributor to Gwyneth paltrow’s Goop wellness website. Mikki Willis is the director of Plandemic and is well-known in California’s yoga scene. David “Avocado” Wolfe is a conspiracy theorist, raw food advocate, and regular participant at anti-vaccination protests throughout the US.

Away from the CCDH’s list, other prominent figures include the yoga instructor Stephanie Birch, who has posted QAnon hashtags on her now-deleted Instagram account, and Krystal Tini, a wellness influencer with 169,000 Instagram followers, who has consistently posted anti-vaccine content, including one post that compared lockdowns to the horrors inflicted on Polish Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. Anti-vaccine wellness groups often use the same trope as before: comparing vaccine deployment to historical atrocities like slavery and the Holocaust. Shiva Rose, a Los Angeles beauty and wellness guru, recently wrote a post comparing vaccines to McCarthyism and slavery.

Beres claims that many of these wellness influencers “use cult leader tactics in digital spaces”, sowing fear among their followers about the Covid vaccination, one Instagram post at time.

However, they maintain that they are misunderstood and misrepresented. Greenacre disassociated herself from Vittengl’s comments about her podcast when she was contacted by Guardian. She stated that it would be misleading and inaccurate to suggest that comments made by a third party are similar to mine. She said she also used the term “medical apartheid”, to describe “the use discrimination and segregation due to medical status, such as treating people negatively based upon their medical status through Covid vaccine passports”, instead of historical discrimination based racial.

Vittengl stated, however, that she was not against the western medical system. However, she felt that the industry had been heavily overtaken by large pharmaceutical companies that are more concerned with financial results than health. She also defended Bush’s work. She said that Bush is trying to find answers for her by being compassionate.

Carr decided to unfollow both women. She now watches Sweaty Betty’s YouTube channel when she practices yoga.

More than a decade has passed since the advent of modern wellness. It has been a decade of spirulina shots, chia bowls and coffee enemas, as well as vagina candle. A decade of unhappy, stressed-out women who wanted to detoxify, balance their chakras, and revive their feminine femininity. Global wellness is estimated to be worth $1.5tn. (PS1.1tn) – And for every saintly Yoga with Adriene, there are thousands of grifters promoting untested therapies to impressionable people.

The modern version of wellness was born out of the primordial goop in the late 00s. Although Paltrow, the high priestess of wellness, started her lifestyle brand in 2008 as a newsletter, but the roots of the movement can be traced back to the 1970s hippy counterculture. As a solution to modern-day problems, wellness was conceived in the 1970s. It was based on three principles: strong individualism and distrust of western medicine. It also emphasized self-optimisation. This is done through strict diets and vigorous exercise programs that are designed to prevent disease and death. Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2018 book, Natural Causes: Life Death and the Illusion of Control, stated that “Wellness is the ability to make oneself a better self-correcting machine capable of setting goals and moving towards them with ease.”

Ann Wigmore promoted the benefits of raw food to treat diabetes, cancer and aids in the 1970s and 1980s. Carl Cederstrom, co-author of “Desperately Seeking self-improvement: A Year Inside The Optimization Movement” says, “There is this belief that you can protect yourself against disease if you stick to a certain lifestyle. Living a healthy lifestyle can build a strong armor around you.”

Contrary to this, western medicine, and in particular the pernicious influence that big pharma has on it, conspires against the people. Cederstrom said, “There’s this doubt about science.” “You often hear the rhetoric that modern civilisation is poisoning our lives, poisoning our food, and we need to find ways of living clean again, by cutting ourselves loose from a society that is constraining us and forcing us to live an inauthentic, unnatural lifestyle.”

Unwavering belief that health is a choice and not a result of social predetermination or genetic predisposition has been the main polluting factor in wellness’s clear, clean stream. Many wellness professionals don’t say that people with type 2 diabetes, morbidly obese, or mental illnesses are a problem. Instead they use euphemisms to disguise their opinions.

Cederstrom says that “Wellness has strong ties to self-help movements.” Cederstrom says, “Wellness has very strong ties to the self-help movement.” Rhonda Byrne, author of The Secret, a self-help book that emphasized the power of positive thinking to heal all sorts of ills in life, once stated that 9/11 victims were at the wrong place at wrong time because of their own negative outlooks and thoughts.

Cederstrom says that there is a general reason people will happily listen to the wellness ideology, in particular, this individualistic approach. We live in a culture where health and morality are closely intertwined. You’re encouraged to believe you are worthy of a life that is good and middle-class. You didn’t work hard enough if you are poor or unhealthy.

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The world of wellness has seen health for nearly 50 years as something that can be tossed aside or taken off at will. Doctors should be distrusted. Individuals must take responsibility for their “wellness journey”. This anti-scientific attitude grew into something much more dangerous with the introduction of the Covid vaccine program. Hood says that this is a long-running problem. Hood says, “We are seeing the erosion of trust in mainline medicine flowering now. It’s extremely dangerous.”

Catherine Gabitan (31 years old and resides in Northern California) was a service worker before she became a “overcoming self-sabotage coach”. Gabitan rose quickly to managerial roles, but she never felt she was living up to her full potential as a college student.

She smoked cigarettes, drank alcohol and ate processed food. These habits remained despite her best efforts. Gabitan states, “One of my first inspirations for getting really healthy was making sure that I had a really clean physique so that I could have the best baby possible.”

Gabitan purchased a $199 lecture series from Jason Christoff, a self-destructive coach. Christoff, who also styles himself as a nutrition and exercise expert, shares misinformation about the Covid vaccine on his public Facebook page and his Telegram channel.

When contacted by the Guardian for comment, Christoff responded: “Maybe you should look into who sponsors your own newspaper, but that would get you sacked.” He subsequently wrote a blog linking the Guardian to a plot by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reduce the global population by 10-15%. Christoff asked: “Is the Guardian and its sponsors looking out for public safety or are they conspiring to reduce population and public health in order to place remaining population under strict tyrannical controls?”

Christoff helped Gabitan realize that she didn’t believe herself worthy of a “higher level of health” for many years. She says, “My subconscious beliefs about why I didn’t feel worthy to have a business or learn to invest or why I drank alcohol and smoked cigarettes were all related to what I felt worthy to achieve.”

Christoff’s lecture series had the same invigorating effect as an ice bath after a sauna. Gabitan began her “health journey” almost immediately. Gabitan quit smoking, coffee, alcohol, and gluten. She started exercising three days a week, and only eat organic, local food. She quit the service sector and rebranded as a self-sabotage coach.

Gabitan, an unvaccinated person, started sharing anti-vaccine content via her Instagram account when the Covid vaccine program began. She wrote, “Injecting poison won’t make you healthy,” on July 8. She wrote that we are taught that genetics and germs cause us to be sick, so we don’t have the responsibility for our toxic lifestyles. She asked, “Could the need for micromanaging what we put on our bodies or consume be a reflection of their poor health history and inability take responsibility for their own well-being?”

Gabitan views health from a hyperindividualistic moral framework. Gabitan takes responsibility for her own health. If other people can’t help themselves, then why should she? She says, “I don’t smoke or drink.” “I invest a lot in high-quality food. I believe in natural immunity, and support my immune system. Covid is something I have taken on radical responsibility. There are many people who still smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol, and they want me to protect them. But they don’t care about my health.”

Gabitan’s example shows the logic fallacy of wellness. The idea that the human brain is a drill sergeant, and that our organs obediently follow orders is the basis of Gabitan. Ehrenreich stated in Natural Causes that you can exercise hard and eat a well-balanced diet but still get stung by an irritated honeybee. You may appear to be a healthy, slim paragon of wellness. However, a macrophage in your body could decide to take on an incipient tumor.

Gabitan doesn’t need the vaccine because she is a shining example of health. People who die from Covid include people with disabilities and those already sick, obese, or elderly. Gabitan, a able-bodied member in the wellness community, doesn’t have to worry about what happens to them.

Gabitan states that “many of those who are being hospitalized from Covid have co-morbidities. Or they are overweight. Our government could have promoted healthy living and healthy eating from the beginning. This would have prevented some of these hospitalisations. It would also encourage people to be their best selves. Right. For me, the most important premise is that people take responsibility for their health.”

It sounds like you’re saying that people who get sick are responsible. It’s not bad luck because anyone can become sick at any moment. She says, “See? It’s not just bad luck.” “I believe part of it’s people taking responsibility for themselves, to ensure they are not putting toxic substances in their bodies – and the second part is not being exposed pollution.” She is the only one who has not been affected by Covid.

Gabitan believes that the vaccine is dangerous and ineffective. She says that the vaccine does not stop transmission. The vaccine is believed to reduce the risk of the virus being transmitted to others, but this protection diminishes over time. She is worried about the effects of the vaccine on her fertility – this fear is common among vaccine-sceptics and is especially prevalent in wellness circles that are dominated by females – and doesn’t trust data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US health agency. She prefers to obtain information about vaccines from Telegram, Children’s Health Defense (a group that was founded by Robert F Kennedy Jr. and is a major source for vaccine disinformation), or Project Veritas which is a conspiracy theory website.

Gabitan has grown to distrust medical science as a result the research she conducted over the past year. Gabitan would refuse to vaccinate her children against any disease if she were a mother. Except for broken bones, she would not accept modern medicine. She says modern medicine is designed to treat symptoms and not the reasons that the symptoms first appeared.

Gabitan is friendly and willing to answer my questions. I asked her why she agreed to talk with me, considering our vastly different views on the vaccine. She says, “To have open dialog, even with people of different opinions, it is the only way we can heal the world.” I told her that her selfishness and inconsiderate attitude would be viewed as disturbing by many. Gabitan replies, “I don’t want to be mean.” “Because I want to help others live the best life possible. This is my passion.”

It is certain that she believes it.

Gabitan’s views do not reflect the opinions of all wellness professionals. Deepak Chopra, a well-known yoga and meditation expert, has urged everyone to get vaccinated. Chopra stated in a June blog, “It’s wrong and unfair to use an obscure group as the tar which stains everyone else.” Gabitan’s anti-vaccine attitude is a good example of how ideologies of wellness can support it.

Beres was a yoga teacher before he worked for Conspirituality. He says, “Even though my involvement in yoga and wellness has been since the 90s,” he admits. There are many health claims about yoga that sound good if you’re in a well-respected yoga studio in a big city. But they don’t represent reality.

Gabitan is his logical conclusion to 50 years of telling people virtue is to be spelled with striated abs, and rippling muscles. Beres states, “When you live somewhere where even a modestly wealthy middle-class lifestyle is far more than what the rest can sustain, it’s easy to become locked into anecdotes and your circle of buddies.” You think: I drink smoothies, do yoga seven days a week, and eat organic foods. Why can’t everyone else do it?”

The USA – the avocado rock of the global wellness community- is extremely individualistic. Everything is about individual freedom and personal learning. “What we see is late-stage capitalism merging into hyperindividualism,” Beres states.

The US also has no universal healthcare. Hood, of the CCDH, says that if you don’t have health insurance it can be very expensive to get treatment. People become interested in alternative options and that’s where wellness experts step in. There is no need to spend thousands of dollars on doctors. It’s easy to take this supplement or this regimen, and it will work.

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It is also a country where pharmaceutical corporations have behaved inhumanely for a long time. After overwhelming evidence that OxyContin’s addictive properties were not being addressed for years, Purdue Pharma paid $4.5bn to settle its role in the opioid crisis. Claims about the pernicious influence of big pharma are de rigueur in anti-vaccine circles. .Plandemic’s .central thesis is that big pharma is suppressing affordable cures for Covid to make money from patented medicines.

Hood says that alternate health entrepreneurs share one thing in common with anti vaxxers: they often talk about big Pharma. It’s not a coincidence that organized anti-vaxx movements have their home in the US. There’s suspicion because there’s more profit motive in US healthcare. The irony is that many wellness professionals are also motivated to make a profit. Beres says, “It’s business for them. But they’re not openly about it.”

To understand why some people might be anti-vaccine is not to justify their wider impact on community and health or the troubling implication that they see the lives of others less fortunate than them as being worthless. Hood states that some of the most disturbingly harmful Covid misinformation I have seen has been from wellness influencers.

He refers to a widely circulated meme about nastiness. This year’s TV host Anthea Turner shared the meme, which featured a fat person riding a mobility scooter and asking for a thin person to wear a mask. Hood says that Hood is implying that the person on the mobility scooter is morally defective and does not have the authority to request someone wear a mask. Similar attitudes exist when it comes to vaccines. Some anti-vaxxer folks have a nasty belief that people who have contracted Covid are somehow deserving.

Social media companies are not willing to remove disinformation. Hood says that social media is “the wild west” when it comes health claims. “You can say anything you want.” In 2020, research by the CCDH found that 95% of vaccine and Covid misinformation was not addressed by platforms.

With a wink and a nudge, wellness influencers – which includes members of the CCDH’s “disinformation dozen”) – continue to be active on social media platforms. They often refer users to their Telegram channels where they let loose. Telegram is not moderated. While Northrup has had her Instagram account disabled, her Facebook page links to her Telegram channel, in which she deluges 58,000 people with a flow of anti-vaccine disinformation. Wolfe also encourages his Facebook followers to follow him on Telegram where he unleashes.

Because it is so lucrative, technology companies are slow in removing anti-vaccine content. Mercola has over 1.7 million Facebook fans. Wolfe has an amazing 11.9 million followers. Wolfe is astonishingly 11.9m. Mercola signed up for Substack’s newsletter platform in March. His $5 per month subscription costs Substack 10% commission. It is already the 11th-most-read paid health newsletter on the platform. (While Substack’s terms of use ban plagiarism, pornography and intellectual property theft, there is no prohibition on disinformation.)

Many people who advocate for anti-vaccine content believe they are doing so for the greater good of society. Beres states that they believe they are martyrs. They are fully invested. They believe this is the apocalyptic-level fight they were meant for, to be champions.” But Beres thinks others are “like: Wow. “I can make a lot of money here.”

A calcifying effect occurs when wellness influencers post anti-vaccine content online. Pro-vaccine people unfollow. A few people reacted in the comments but eventually unfollowed. Meanwhile, followers who are hesitant about vaccines shift towards anti-vaccine attitudes, and anti-vaxxers gather with applause. An average post on Gabitan’s Instagram account would receive 20-30 likes before she started posting anti-vaccine content. A post about big pharma can get her more than 150 likes. Hood says that the more people receive this social reinforcement, then the more anti-vaxx they become.

Anti-vaccine wellness bloggers see an increase in followers. Many of these people are new to the site. Beres says, “What happened after Plandemic was that QAnon infiltrated wellbeing circles.” “Yoga instructors began using QAnon hashtags, and their following grew by hundreds of thousands.” Marc-Andre Argentino from Concordia University in Montreal has called the phenomenon “pastel QAnon” Carr is puzzled at how QAnon (a rightwing movement) has penetrated an area that was once countercultural and hippy. She says she is concerned by the similarities between rightwing groups, and the wellness community.

Influencers are influenced by the dopamine-induced pull of engagement and likes, while presenting themselves as victims of online hate mobs or cancel culture. In an Instagram post, Vittengl described herself as a victim in a story. “The backlash is unbelievable,” she wrote. It can sometimes get too much for someone who is energetically sensitive [someone who feels emotions in an elevated way] However,… speaking out is no longer an option.” Later she said to me that although it may seem like victim mentality, this is a very real phenomenon.

Carr finds this narrative frustrating. “This community feels like they are being victimised, but they are not victims. They are well-off, privileged people with options.” Carr is British-Turkish. He takes offense at the way the community uses the language of human right to oppose vaccines. Carr says, “That drives me insane.” “To paint vaccines as against human right… “I come from a country where human right are constantly being reduced.”

Users like Carr have no choice but to unfollow their former gurus in the absence of any action by the social media giants. She says, “In a passive manner, that’s mine solution.” They will be replaced by many more people. Hood says that if you’re an average person with doubts about the vaccine, and you search for answers, it’s far more likely you’ll find an anti-vaxx source rather than an authoritative source such as the NHS or CDC. These are very effective ways to radicalize people.

Hood hopes this alliance of wellness professionals with conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers will lead to a wider appraisal of an industry that has, for many decades, been full of charlatans, quacks, and profiteers from the most basic human desire – the need for health. Hood said that he isn’t saying that the entire industry is bad. Hood says, “But there are more questions that need to be asked about wellness or the alternative health industry. This is the result of telling people that they can control their own health with willpower and diet. We don’t see it as so harmful, most of the time. It’s clear that the pandemic is dangerous. The harms were probably there all along. The pandemic exposed them.”

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