Veronica Wolski was a believer in the deeply unhinged QAnon conspiracy theory. When it came to COVID-19, she was anti-vaccine and anti-mask, at one point standing on a pedestrian bridge over Chicago’s Kennedy Expressway with a sign that read “Ax the vax.” She became a darling in the dark fringes of the internet for believing ivermectin, a drug used to treat parasitic worms, was a COVID-19 cure-all.
Wolski is now dead. She died early Monday from pneumonia due to COVID-19 infection with hypothyroidism as a contributing factor, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
As Americans lose patience with, and sympathy for, COVID-19 vaccine conspiracists, some will write off Wolski’s death from the virus with a shrug and an offhand remark: Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.
But her death should give us all pause. She died of COVID-19, but she was killed in part by opportunistic nonsense-peddlers and their addictive patter of lies. That siren song led the 64-year-old to her grave, while doing harm to others along the way.
The QAnon followers who embraced her flooded the hospital with calls demanding Wolski be given ivermectin. They labeled people at the hospital—doctors and nurses who have spent the past year and a half saving lives on the front lines of this pandemic—murderers, and claimed Wolski was a victim of “medical tyranny.” They leveled threats.
The harassment was ginned up by high-profile national QAnon profiteers like former Donald Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and disgraced pro-Trump lawyer Lin Wood. They didn’t see Wolski as a human being. They saw her as a patsy who could help them keep their followers riled up, an easy mark to elevate their perverse brands.
Wood announced Wolski’s death on his Telegram account, which has about 815,000 subscribers, and wrote: “Now on Earth, it is our responsibility to ensure that these medical murders stop NOW and the perpetrators be brought to justice.”
The conspiracies that drove Wolski to resist simple measures that could have protected her from the coronavirus are the same ones that gave birth to the hundreds of domestic terrorists who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, convinced, without a lick of evidence, that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen. It’s the same pack of conspiracies that is leading thousands of Americans to die from a virus rather than receive a safe and effective vaccine.
And while it’s easy to look at people leaping down rabbit holes and figure natural selection will sort things out, those deceived by opportunists with ill intent often cause collateral damage.
Few of us knew Wolski. She spent years visiting that pedestrian bridge, first hoisting signs in support of former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, then switching to QAnon, which, as described in a recent Public Religion Research Institute study, alleges that “the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.” According to the study, 15% of Americans believe that nonsense.
QAnon, like all good conspiracy theories, regularly shifts and absorbs other issues, so it glommed onto both the idea that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Trump and the COVID-19 anti-vaccine hysteria.
Clearly, Wolski was lost to this world of lies and manipulation. But she certainly isn’t the only one who paid a price.
Good, innocent people at the hospital that treated Wolski were thrust into the volatile QAnon tornado of online hate. By making Wolski a celebrity for their cause, the anti-vaccine crowd will now use her as a martyr, pushing more people away from commonsense behavior.
Reading that definition of QAnon, it’s hard to believe anyone can take it seriously. But they do, and it’s a threat to people like Wolski, to people who believe in science and follow sensible health guidelines and—as we saw on Jan. 6—to our democracy.
You can barely get on social media lately without reading about someone like Wolski. The headline “Outspoken opponent of vaccine and mask mandates dies of COVID-19” is becoming ubiquitous.
Regarding the 2020 election, it’s now a prerequisite for Republican politicians or political candidates to at least nod to the lie that Trump was robbed. And now fencing is slated to go back up around the U.S. Capitol in preparation for a Sept. 18 rally in support of those arrested in the Jan. 6 attack.
We cannot ignore what’s happening in front of our faces. Whether it’s ludicrous prattling about “medical tyranny” or half-baked and potentially deadly COVID-19 solutions pimped by losers working a new grift, paranoid claims of a “Deep State” or evidence-free conspiracies cooked up to kill the pain of an election defeat, we have to take this stuff seriously.
Don’t roll your eyes at Wolski’s death. Use whatever platform you have to spread facts and denounce conspiracy theories. Don’t tolerate this poison or anyone who spreads it, whether it’s a politician or a pundit or a family member or a friend.
Don’t assume this too shall pass.
Because even if it does, people will go down with it. Wolski proved that as she drew her final breath.
Rex Huppke is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.