Opinion

The Surrey Board of Trade shouldn't help anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. build his brand

The chair of the board has defended the invitation, noting that Kennedy "will not be speaking on his vaccination position" and will only be addressing the issue of green business. But giving him a platform and calling him a "visionary" positions him as an expert and normalizes his views in general. 

With so many actual experts in green business, the Surrey Board of Trade can do much better than Kennedy

The chair of the board has defended the invitation, noting that Kennedy "will not be speaking on his vaccination position" and will only be addressing the issue of green business. But giving him a platform and calling him a "visionary" positions him as an expert and normalizes his views in general.  (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has been spreading lies about the safety and effectiveness of vaccinations for years, claiming they make kids sick and that there's a vast government conspiracy to cover it up.

But despite this record, Kennedy has been invited by the Surrey Board of Trade — which referred to him as a "visionary" — to speak at its fall environment and business awards events. 

Anita Huberman, chair of the Surrey Board of Trade, has defended the invitation, noting that Kennedy "will not be speaking on his vaccination position" and will only be addressing the issue of green business. But giving him a platform and calling him a visionary positions him as an expert and normalizes his views in general. 

While his conclusions on climate change, for example, are consistent with those of the scientific community, his expressions on other matters such as vaccination show a remarkably limited understanding of science and critical thinking. Just as a broken clock is right twice a day, Kennedy has been right a few times, but is very wrong on this critically important issue. 

Amplification of non-experts

Giving a platform to people like Kennedy feeds society's mistrust in authority and this has led nonexperts to be viewed as truth-telling crusaders battling against the evils of the so-called Deep State and Big Pharma. I am no expert in, and will give no opinion on Cape Cod real estate; in the same way, I ask Kennedy to reassess his own understanding of accepted facts in the science of immunization. 

And with so many actual experts in green business, the Surrey Board of Trade can do much better than Kennedy.

It doesn't suffice to suggest that Kennedy's anti-vaccinations views are just his personal opinions, and as such, we can't fault him for those. Saying the Beatles are better than the Rolling Stones is an opinion. But the efficacy and safety of vaccinations are facts. 

We need to support the truth and not give space to those who wish to undo it, much as we do not tolerate those who claim the Holocaust never happened,  or that people should be killed because of whom they love, or that adults should be able to exploit children.

Huberman has granted that Kennedy's "position on anti-vaccination" is "unfortunate," but this is a mischaracterization. His position is a deliberate one, and it's wrong. Kennedy's own family has disavowed his propaganda efforts. So too must the Surrey Board of Trade.

This is not an issue of censorship. No one is suggesting that Kennedy should be silenced by the state; simply that he should not be given a greater stage to build his profile. Much as my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins, one's right to freedom of speech ends at the point that it violates the rights of our most vulnerable, such as children who cannot be vaccinated and rely on herd immunity. 

Vaccination rates must reach 96 per cent for herd immunity against measles to be effective. But MMR vaccine levels among children in the Fraser Health Authority, which includes Surrey, have dropped to 83 per cent as of 2018. Indeed, the World Health Organization has listed vaccine hesitancy as one of the top global health risks in 2019. 

It is against this backdrop that Kennedy has been invited to speak. It is thanks to rhetoric like his that we have seen increased hesitancy, decreased immunization rates, and the return of deadly diseases that were previously eradicated. The Board of Trade must also be aware that one of Kennedy's business activities includes acting as the chair of the board of Children's Health Defense, an organization that propagates anti-science nonsense

As an alternative, I suggest that the Surrey Board of Trade invite Dr. Victoria Lee, CEO of the Fraser Health Authority, to discuss the social and economic harms of vaccine hesitancy, which can include disability costs, leave time for parents to care for sick children, and a health care system spending valuable resources treating previously eradicated diseases and educating against anti-vaccination lies. 

A good business should be ethical and responsible. Kennedy does not reflect these values. Allowing him to build on his brand as a trustworthy activist literally threatens the health of our children. His invitation to speak by the Surrey Board of Trade must be rescinded.


This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

About the Author

Eric Cadesky is a full-service family doctor in Vancouver, past-president of Doctors of BC, and Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia. He can be followed on social media @DrCadesky

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