Amber Lee Sears woke up the other morning, she wrote on Instagram, feeling “like a bus hit me.” What Sears described could have been a common cold or COVID—“slight fever, chills, headache, body aches, runny nose & overall fatigue,” she wrote. But given who Sears is, her physical state represented both a problem and an opportunity. Sears describes herself as a “holistic business and lifestyle coach” and she is married to JP Sears, a comedian and self-described “freedom fighter” who’s recently made opposition to vaccine mandates a huge part of his public persona. A few days after Lee Sears got sick, JP jetted off to Washington to help lead the so-called Defeat the Mandates march in DC.
For the sake of branding, it was incumbent on Lee Sears to not just recover quickly, but do so using the usual complement of COVID vaccine skeptics everywhere: ivermectin, “immunity support IV drips,” vitamins, and a positive attitude. (She eventually stopped the ivermectin, she wrote on Telegram, “because it was cleaning me out big time!” and causing her to spend a lot of time in the bathroom). When she wasn’t recovered after nine days, she admitted to her Telegram followers that the virus she was experiencing, whatever it was, was truly different: “It works in waves and attacks you mentally, physically AND spiritually,” she wrote.
As the Omicron wave continues to swamp the world, many, many more people are getting sick, including people who have made COVID skepticism or outright denial a cornerstone of their public-facing personae. And when anti-vaccine, anti-mandate celebrities and influencers get sick, they’re afforded a huge opportunity to show that they were right all along—that their refusal to take the virus seriously, or their faith in alternative treatments, was warranted.
There are two distinct types of marketing at work here. One, hawking specific products, is quite direct. (Sears has name-checked the IV drip place she uses in Austin at least twice.) The other sort of marketing, of course, is about burnishing one’s personal brand, using your lived experience with the disease as a way to further promote your worldview. (Pro-vaccination people do this too, of course, attributing their mild illness to vaccines when they test positive; the difference is there’s solid and extensive evidence that vaccines do, in fact, make breakthrough infections more mild.)
Both kinds of marketing involve a tricky high-wire act; it’s dangerous, in terms of image, to be seen suffering severe illness or risking death from something you’ve insisted is no worse than the flu. But COVID skeptic after skeptic is showing the same impulse, to turn their sickness into a literally viral marketing moment. In Sears’ case, she promised updates to people who joined her Telegram channel, hyped the IV drip companies she’d been using, and linked to the protocol promoted by the FLCCC, the pro-ivermectin organization hacking its way into the public consciousness.
The benefits and pitfalls of illness as a moment to grow your brand were immediately clear to Matthew Remski. He’s a former yoga teacher, cult researcher, and author, as well as one of the co-hosts of the Conspirituality podcast, which examines the ways the supposedly progressive health and wellness worlds have become overtaken with conspiracy theories previously confined to the right wing. Sears and other “COVID minimizing wellness influencers” face a real dilemma when they get sick, he wrote on Instagram.
“Do you post about your bespoke treatment, in the spirit of oversharing and the mode of wellness porn?” he wrote. “Do you model the abundance of private medicine manifesting for you, right when you need it? Showing off your self care and hyper confidence is, after all, how you got here. You gotta own it, girl. But what if you start declining? It’s a real gamble.” Lee Sears responded by calling Remski a “piece of shit” and accusing him of slandering her; she’s since said she’s feeling better, and stopped sharing quite as many hairy details about her illness.
The impulses to use your particular tangle with COVID as a moment to showcase the rightness of your beliefs have manifested outside the wellness-influencer world, too. When Joe Rogan tested positive for COVID in September, he hastened to say he was taking ivermectin along with what he termed “the kitchen sink,” including (much more effective) monoclonal antibodies. Rogan said he tested negative after about a week, and upon returning to his show, continued to sing ivermectin’s praises, downplaying the other medications he’d received. Just a few weeks ago, faded right-wing radio host Glenn Beck did something very similar; he said on his show that he was dealing with his second bout of COVID, and that it is “just getting into my lungs.” That seems less than ideal, but Beck hastened to add that he, too, was taking ivermectin, a drug which has no proven efficacy for treating or preventing COVID. (Large, well-formulated studies on its use are still underway, but many of the initial papers touting its miraculous use as a COVID treatment have proven to be either flawed or outright fraudulent.)
On Instagram, Beck also complained that his doctor wasn’t being allowed to prescribe “THE TREATMENT HE AND MANY OTHER DR’s Believe in,” adding, “Why is it we are out of the Monoclonal antibody treatment?” (This was before the FDA halted the emergency use authorization for two kinds of monoclonal antibodies because they’re ineffective against the Omicron variant, a decision conservative politicians have decried.) If he were to get seriously ill, Beck added, “it will only be because this administration along with Big Pharma won’t allow the free market to actually work.” (Beck recovered and was soon making his regular rounds on Fox News and Tucker Carlson again, promoting a new book on the so-called Great Reset, a World Economic Forum initiative that’s become a target for conspiracy theories from the right claiming it’s a blueprint for creating a tyrannical one-world government.)
Beck fared better than some of his counterparts: A striking number of right-wing radio hosts have died of COVID while promoting an anti-vaccine worldview. (There’s also anti-vax podcaster Doug Kuzma, who died of COVID in January after contracting it at a conspiracy conference.) All the hosts who died were older men at particularly high risk, and all, as the Washington Post pointed out, were doing something that’s been baked into talk radio since Rush Limbaugh in the early ‘90s: looking to increase viewership and animate their base by stoking suspicion and outrage against mainstream medical and government bodies. (At least two of the hosts, per the Post, told friends and family that they regretted their decisions not to get vaccinated before they died.)
Behaving as though COVID isn’t particularly serious also, of course, animates a lot of political actors. Some of them have also quite directly and literally died for their beliefs, including Texas GOP leader H. Scott Apley, who died of COVID after months of railing against masks and vaccines, as well as Orange County GOP figure Kelly Ernby, who died of COVID at 44 while preparing to run for State Assembly, speaking at an anti-mandate rally weeks before her death. Things go better, of course, for the politicians whose illness doesn’t take such a hideous turn, like former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who’s been in New York this week to sue the New York Times, a defamation trial that was delayed after Palin tested positive for COVID. Palin, who recently said she would get a COVID shot “over my dead body,” was seen dining indoors at the Italian restaurant Elio’s before her diagnosis, sparking a round of criticism of the restaurant for evidently not asking her for proof of vaccination. After her positive COVID test, she’s also been seen repeatedly dining outdoors, apparently refusing to isolate or social distance as the CDC recommends COVID-positive people do.
This isn’t Palin’s first time with COVID, and the ways her response has shifted are also worth noting. The first time she tested positive, in March of 2021, she said she’d had “bizarre” symptoms and, surprisingly in retrospect, touted wearing a mask: "Through it all, I view wearing that cumbersome mask indoors in a crowd as not only allowing the newfound luxury of being incognito, but trust it's better than doing nothing to slow the spread," Palin told People magazine. "And history will show we Masked Singer visitors were masked before being masked was cool." (Palin was appearing on the reality show the Masked Singer at the time.) This time, with the politicization of masks and other basic COVID precautions ever-higher, it apparently seemed better from a branding standpoint (or perhaps more convenient) to simply go about her life as normal. Gothamist reported that Palin drew a hive of selfie-and-autograph seekers as she ate outdoors on the Upper East Side, and she became a trending topic on Twitter, which hasn’t happened in quite some time.
In the midst of all this loud signaling about what an individual’s illness means, the cachet of ivermectin as an alternative treatment is such that vaccine skeptics are even touting it for illnesses that may or may not be COVID. Earlier this week, Mike “the Health Ranger” Adams sent out an urgent email blast to his subscribers. Adams runs a website called Natural News, a warehouse of particularly deranged suspicions: Recently he’s been preoccupied by a truck full of monkeys that overturned in the Midwest, and whether they represent a new bioweapon being unleashed on the United States, the previous one being COVID. Adams had been momentarily prevented from doing his usual podcast, he told his subscribers, due to “a toxic nanoparticle attack late last week.” Curiously, he, too, was using ivermectin to recover from whatever “a nanoparticle attack” is. Even so, he wrote, “the attack wrecked my voice, and as of Sunday night, I literally could not speak.” It was only thanks, he wrote, to the prayers of his audience that he recovered quickly. He encouraged them to continue following him on multiple platforms, to aid in his recovery.
“It seems God did not want me to take too much time off from sounding the alarm and preparing his flock for the great cosmic test that is coming,” he wrote on Natural News. “I shall have no rest, it seems, and although enemies of humanity can throw destructive obstacles in our way, they are no match for the power of the ultimate creator.” A brief illness was, in the end, just the framework for a much bigger and better story.