This is the latest edition of our column that excavates the origins of public figures’ factually dubious comments. We explain what their claims are referring to, the evidence (or lack thereof) behind them and where they sprang from in the first place.
Who said what …
On July 19, Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia tweeted the following: “The controversial #COVID19 vaccines should not be forced on our military for a virus that is not dangerous for non-obese people and those under 65. With 6,000 vax related deaths and many concerning side effects reported, the vax should be a choice not a mandate for everyone.” Because her post contained several false statements, Twitter labelled it “misleading” and issued a 12-hour ban on her account for violating the service’s COVID-19 misleading information policy. Greene’s claims that there have been 6,000 “vax related” deaths and that COVID-19 is “not dangerous” for people who aren’t obese or over 65 are both inaccurate. Among the more than 163 million people who have gotten the COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S., 6,207 deaths1 have been reported according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but there is no evidence those were “vax related deaths.” And while obesity and old age are risk factors for COVID-19, they are not the only ones, and the disease is still dangerous for people without those risk factors.
Some background …
Since the earliest days of the pandemic, researchers have been studying which kinds of comorbidities can make someone more likely to have a severe case of COVID-19 that could lead to hospitalization or death. After a year and a half, it’s clear obesity or old age does make someone more susceptible. But so do lots of other conditions. The CDC lists 17 categories, including cancer, pregnancy and chronic lung diseases. But otherwise healthy people can also become seriously ill from COVID-19, not to mention die from it. To claim that the novel coronavirus is “not dangerous” for anyone who isn’t obese or over 65 is wildly inaccurate. And focusing on obesity as though it were the only risk factor for severe COVID-19 is a trend among right-wing communities that combines two parallel threads in online subcultures: the anti-vax community’s belief that a healthy lifestyle and one’s natural immune system are as effective as vaccination in preventing disease and the right-wing troll culture’s long fixation on fat shaming.
In a press conference about the Twitter ban, Greene tried to clarify her statement, saying she “was talking about the highest amount of deaths, the highest risk factor” and that “78 percent of people that were hospitalized and died were obese.” That stat is based on a CDC study from March, but it comes with some caveats. First, this figure includes people who are considered obese and people who are considered overweight. Second, 73.6 percent of Americans age 20 or over are considered overweight or obese, according to the CDC. While the numbers for people with obesity are still higher among COVID-19 patients who were hospitalized, needed a ventilator, or died, the stat Greene cited is a bit like surveying COVID-19 cases at a sorority house and finding that 100 percent of the hospitalizations occurred among women. And that’s not even taking into account that the measurement used to diagnose obesity — the body mass index — is flawed, at best.
There is no denying that obesity is a risk factor for more severe COVID-19 infections. Compared with people with a healthy weight, obese people who contract COVID-19 are 113 percent more likely to be hospitalized, 74 percent more likely to be put in intensive care, and 48 percent more likely to die, according to a meta-analysis published in August in the journal Obesity Reviews. But obesity is not the only, or even necessarily the highest, risk factor for more severe COVID-19 infections. Smokers, for instance, have a 40-50 percent higher risk of severe disease or death from COVID-19 compared with nonsmokers, according to the World Health Organization. People diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease who contract COVID-19 have a 30 percent higher risk of death than people without Parkinson’s, according to a University of Iowa study published in September. And pregnant women who get COVID-19 are 70 percent more likely to die than those who aren’t pregnant, according to the CDC.
But Greene didn’t tweet that people who don’t smoke, aren’t pregnant or don’t have Parkinson’s disease have nothing to fear from COVID-19. She specifically singled out obesity, something many right-wing communities online have done since the start of the pandemic.
Where the comment came from …
A common refrain in this online community is that the only people at risk for severe COVID-19 infections are those who are considered either overweight or obese. Occasionally, other medical risk factors are mentioned, but there seems to be a particular focus on obesity. On patriots.win, a forum for supporters of former President Donald Trump, there are dozens of posts about obesity being a risk factor for COVID-19, many of which are scrutinizing news reports of deaths to give an armchair diagnosis of the victims. “The vaccine would not have saved her son. He’s obese and looks unhealthy,” said one post sharing a screengrab of a Daily Mail article about an Alabama woman who regretted not having her son, who died of COVID-19, vaccinated. “Vulnerable remain vulnerable even with vaccine,” the post claims.
After the CDC published its finding that 78 percent of hospitalized COVID-19 patients were considered overweight or obese, this statistic became a frequent (and often misquoted) datapoint in right-wing and anti-vax communities online. In May, Jordan Sather, a QAnon influencer shared a video with his tens of thousands of followers on the messaging app Telegram of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio promoting vaccinations. Many responded with inaccurate quips about COVID-19 affecting only obese people. “They know that obese was 90% of the reason people were in the hospital for COVID?! I guess they don’t believe in the science,” one follower wrote. “Aren’t 80 percent of all C19 deaths from obese people? Hmmm…” wrote another.
There’s a long history of right-wing groups fat-shaming people online. To wit: an appreciable contingent of subscribers to the now-banned subreddit r/fatpeoplehate — which existed only to mock and criticize people who are overweight in the most vitriolic terms possible — moved over to the now-also-banned subreddit r/The_Donald, where Trump supporters posted right-wing memes and discussions. Of course, fat-shaming online is not limited to right-wing trolls. It’s incredibly widespread, and many on the left are just as guilty of it — consider House Speaker Nancy Pelosi publicly fat-shaming Trump on live television, or the droves of internet users who have criticized measures to prioritize obese people for the COVID-19 vaccine, or reward vaccination with free goodies like Krispy Kreme doughnuts. But it does hold a particularly pernicious and prevalent role in right-wing communities online. The fixation on obesity as if it were the only, or most important, risk factor for severe COVID-19 infections is just the latest in right-wing trolls’ longstanding tradition of attacking overweight people online.