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Anti-vaxxers and the far right

On November 30, police arrested a man over an alleged hit-and-run outside a Covid-19 testing facility in Collingwood which resulted in a health worker suffering life-threatening injuries. The day before, anti-vaxxers had smashed up a café in Thornbury and left a note reading ‘do what Daniel Andrews says and we will burn your shop down and kill you motherfucker.’

These weren’t isolated occurrences. Earlier this month, The Guardian reported on a study of the retail industry that documented a sharp uptick in customer abuse. Anti-vaxxers have harassed, insulted and assaulted retail workers, disproportionately targeting female, non-white and younger workers. Doctors and nurses, too, have endured harassment, abuse, attempts at coercion and assault.

The pattern appears to have been accelerating following regular and sizeable protests against public health measures, themselves a dismaying new development in Australian politics. To respond, the left must develop a grounded analysis that answers the questions: what is the political content of the anti-vax movement, what is its social base, and what are its dynamics?

 

Anti-vax ideology

Let’s begin with the political content of the anti-vax rallies. Right-wing populist politicians and figureheads, including Clive Palmer, Pauline Hanson, Peta Credlin and Craig Kelly have attended and spoken at the rallies. As for political organisations, in addition to online far-right populist outfits like Reignite Democracy Australia, leftist writers, journalists, activists and anti-fascist researchers have documented fascist and neo-Nazi leaders and organisers at the anti-vax rallies. As John Safran reported in the Saturday Paper, their anti-semitism is barely concealed with complacently ironic memes and smug evasions.

The rallies are also attended by many more esoteric varieties of conspiracists, ultra-nationalists, Christian fundamentalists and conservatives. At the September rally outside the CFMMEU’s offices in Melbourne, observers identified at least one speaker and a number of attendees as members of the Ustaša, the Croatian fascist movement dating back to the 1930s.

In photos of the more recent anti-vax rallies, you can identify national flags of Venezuela, the US puppet Republic of South Vietnam, as well as from former-Yugoslavian republics and former Eastern Bloc countries, including Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and others. What unites these nationalisms is the often virulent anti-communism present in these diasporic communities. This is not aimed at actual communists, but represents a paranoid, militant anti-leftism. It can be perceived in speeches and signs that accuse Daniel Andrews of being a Chinese agent, that compare public health measures to Stalinist totalitarianism and in t-shirts with the words ‘The final variant is Communism.’

The other non-Australian national flags at the anti-vax are rallies typically from countries that are currently host to right-wing or far-right nationalist movements—for example, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Greece. Interestingly, although people from the subcontinent make up a significant and growing proportion of recent migrants to Australia, flags from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are not visible. Perhaps this is because migrants from these backgrounds are over-represented among frontline and precarious workers.

In addition to ubiquitous Australian flags and occasional Aboriginal flags, you can see many Eureka Flags and Australian Merchant Navy flags. The Aboriginal and Eureka flags can be chalked up to confused participants or the cynicism of organisers who want to appropriate these symbols of resistance. The Australian Merchant Navy flag represents the Sovereign Citizen movement. Other flags replace the Union Jack in the Australian flag with America’s stars and stripes.

Protesters’ placards span a wide and repulsive spectrum. There are pro-Trump signs, United Australia Party campaign placards, Christian fundamentalist slogans and mass-produced corflutes urging us to save the children or declaring that we have shed enough blood. As has been reported, many signs at these rallies refer to the anti-Semitic ‘QUI?’ meme or the alt-right QAnon conspiracy theory.

As a rule, the more homemade a sign at these rallies looks, the more deranged it is. Many are bizarrely sexual, perhaps expressing a sadistic desire to see Andrews raped, or inadvertently betray the psycho-sexual roots of the demonstrators’ fear of needles. Others signs call for political violence against a democratically elected government. Among the more conventional slogans are ones urging ‘Truth, Love and the Eternal Self,’ or that seek to raise awareness about the ‘plandemic,’ the dangers of 5G mobile towers and microchips.

 

The social base of the anti-vax movement

Since political dynamics are grounded in socio-economic realities, we need empirical data to complete the picture. So far, there hasn’t been much to go on. But now, thanks to microchips embedded on the anti-vax protesters, we know a few things about who they are: social research company Roy Morgan has recently published a report profiling anti-vax protesters at the November 20 rally in Melbourne, using metadata harvested from their smartphones.

The protesters overwhelmingly came from Melbourne’s outer suburbs, including South Morang, Tarneit, Cranbourne, Langwarrin, Werribee, Caroline Springs and Sunshine. A heat map revealed particular concentrations of protesters came from Melbourne’s Eastern and South Eastern suburbs—the most loyal Liberal electorates—with smaller concentrations making the journey from Ballarat, Traralgon and Torquay, as well as other regional centres.

Beyond this, the report sorted protesters into one of six ‘Helix Personas,’ categories designed to ‘segment consumers into targetable groups.’ They incorporate demographic information as well as values and other beliefs that businesses find useful to determine consumer behaviour. Of the six Helix Personas, there were two that significantly over-represented among the anti-vax protesters, as compared to the proportion of the total Australian population they make up.

The first, ‘Hearth and Home,’ identifies people whose lives revolve around family and the home. These make up about 15 per cent of the general population, but 23 per cent of the anti-vax protesters. As home-owners and improvers, they are on average older, wealthier, whiter and more conservative than younger and less affluent demographics who are often locked out of home ownership. This demographic is suburban and, along with better-off workers, it includes many small business owners who were hard-hit by the pandemic.

The second over-represented category is called ‘Fair Go,’ who make up 5 percent of the population but about 14 percent of the anti-vax protesters. People in this category are poor, often locked out of work and marginalised. At only 5 percent of the general population, this category is no means a proxy for working class Australians—rather, it represents a particularly disadvantaged, alienated minority.

The other marketing categories—‘Metrotechs,’ ‘Aspirationals‘ and ‘Doing Fine’—were all significantly under-represented at the anti-vax rallies. In addition to covering many people who work blue- and white-collar working class jobs, these categories also cover many types of middle class professionals, business owners and well-off retirees.

Lastly, the ‘Leading Lifestyle’ Helix Persona made up 31 per cent of the anti-vax protests, in almost equal proportion to their presence in the general population. Roy Morgan’s website defines this category as ‘focused on success and career and family,’ as ‘proud of their prosperity and achievements,’ and as ‘big spenders’ who ‘enjoy cultured living to the max.’ Without more detailed information, we can only make educated guesses about how this category stacks up in class terms. At any rate, the point is somewhat moot given they were neither over- nor under-represented.

 

Geography and political economy

Roy Morgan’s research methods are not quite on the level of Marx’s Capital. Interpreting the data requires a bit of sociological imagination, and the conclusions drawn should be taken as provisional.

Firstly, given the preponderance of home-owners and improvers, the anti-vax protesters are comparatively—but not uniformly—better off than most. This, however, does not map neatly onto a class analysis. While many younger white- and blue-collar workers are effectively locked out of home ownership, an electrician or plumber in their fifties may well own an investment property on top of the family home. This also suggests that young people are somewhat under-represented among the anti-vax protesters.

The geographic factors interlock with economic ones, and are perhaps more important. Melbourne’s outer suburbs—where the anti-vaxxers are overwhelmingly concentrated—can be more affordable for younger families wanting to buy a home, and who will then face decades of mortgage repayments. At the same time, many of the Liberal-voting outer suburbs are home to relatively well-off families who prefer a larger block of land to an equally valuable, but small inner-city terrace.

Whatever the case, the outer suburbs are sprawling, under-serviced and atomised. The main cultural focal points are mega churches, shopping malls and RSLs and hotels full of pokies. There are very few meaningful progressive traditions in these areas, and they are among the most alienated from politics, which helps explain why many of Victoria’s swing seats are located there.

This helps us understand the overrepresentation ‘hearth and home’ anti-vax protesters. If you drive through Point Cook, for example, you will pass countless very new, very uniform and fairly substantial family homes. Many have security roller-shutters installed on their windows and large satellites on the roof. This is a hint. These suburbs both produce and reflect people whose lifestyle is profoundly atomised, insular and focused on the family home.

Interestingly, the spots in Roy Morgan’s heat map were less dense for Melbourne’s Northern and North Western outer suburbs, which are home to more migrants. These areas endured higher rates of policing during the pandemic, while linguistic and cultural barriers meant vaccine hesitancy was more prevalent. Despite this, residents of Thomastown, Broadmeadows, Fawkner or Deer Park seem to be relatively under-represented among the anti-vax protesters.

 

Connecting ideology with social reality

There are two points that help us understand the anti-vax worldview, as disparate and unhinged as it is, in light of these social realities.

Firstly, anti-vaxxers increasingly believe in totalising worldviews whose logic is fictive, and built on a usually unconscious rejection of reason. This is to say, the links they see between phenomena are illusory, and the resulting worldview is structured like a work of fiction. By contrast, the majority of leftist worldviews are committed to reason and evidence. We don’t need to posit conspiracies to explain the evils committed by banks, fossil fuel companies and, yes, pharmaceutical corporations.

Although anti-vax narratives can vary greatly, they suit both the psychological and political desires of those who hold them. The stories they have come to believe after conducting ‘their own research’ help them project their anxieties outward, away from themselves, their bodies, their families and their homes. This can help explain the anti-vaxxers’ hysterical rejection of evidence that doesn’t suit their conviction.

This also helps us understand why anti-vaxxers disproportionately come from atomised outer-suburbs. If your life revolves around family and home, perhaps the pandemic feels like an assault on your way of life. It’s therefore an effective defence mechanism to externalise real distress and anxiety away from the home, and onto an imagined other. This also helps explain the anti-vaxxer’s obsession with protecting the children from vaccines, the offensive appropriation of pro-choice slogans, as well as many of the bizarrely sexual sentiments in their propaganda. We should also remember that the outer suburbs were among the only areas where people bought into the Liberals’ fear campaign about African gangs, prior to the last state election.

The second common thread is a radical form of neoliberal individualism. Anti-vaxxers who follow particularly individualist lifestyles—from Yoga teachers, to wellness influencers, prosperity gospel Christians and café owners—are already practiced at elevating ‘their truth’ above that of the society upon which their lifestyles depend. For them, it’s not such a stretch to regard public health measures as a threat to their essentially libertarian self-determination. This also explains the anti-working class behaviour exhibited by many anti-vaxxers.

 

Conclusions

Three conclusions follow from this analysis.

Firstly, the anti-vax movement is a far-right movement. To be clear, this is not to say that every participant adheres to a far-right worldview. I grant that there might be one or two confused progressives among the crowd. Consciousness can be contradictory like that.

Rather, what I mean is that the anti-vax movement as a whole should be understood as far-right. Its social base is that of the mainstream right and the populist right. However, what makes it far-right are its radically conservative dynamics. Anti-vaxxers wish to preserve the status quo; before the pandemic they were more comfortable. Rather than outlining progressive solutions (rebuilding the welfare state, raising wages, etc.), they demand to go back to how things were. The paradox is, however, that as anti-vaxxers become more violent, anti-democratic and unhinged, they will increasingly threaten the status quo. Defeat may accelerate this—you can see the same trajectory with Trumpism. This also explains the tension within the Coalition between their anti-vax MPs and the majority, who hold business’ interests at heart, and are garden-variety conservatives.

Of course, it’s hard to make accurate predictions about what long-term impact the anti-vax movement will have. It seems likely that it will result in stronger vote for the UAP, which will likely flow through to the Coalition. Also, it has given the out-and-out fascists an opportunity to recruit, practice strategic positioning and build a more lasting organisational presence.

The second conclusion is about how the left should respond. The anti-vax movement is dangerous. Its should be defeated and its participants demoralised to the point of making them reconsider their militancy. A few on the left have argued that somehow, we should ‘relate’ to it, perhaps by attending rallies under acceptable slogans, or by staging our own rallies against Andrews’ pandemic powers bill. This is like saying that we should build support for Indigenous sovereignty by relating to One Nation voters. And anyway, to relate to a movement, you have to endorse at least some of its political content.

This leads to the third conclusion. Presuming the anti-vax movement doesn’t peter out, the only organisations with the social weight to counter it are the trade unions. This isn’t to disparage the important work being done by groups like the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, which can build a longer-term movement. Rather, it is to say that a union rally with thousands of nurses, cleaners, teachers, retail workers, hospitality workers—and, yes, construction workers—could deny the anti-vax movement its populist mantle overnight. It would also confront a movement of dangerous narcissists and reactionaries with collectivism and solidarity.

Image: Ted McGrath

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Daniel Lopez is a Contributing Editor for Jacobin.

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Comments

  1. There is no argument that the “freedom rallies” have boosted reactionary sentiments and are a potential source of recruitment for the far right – the outright Nazis and the alt right conspiracy theorists.

    We need to understand what drives, in the case of Melbourne, tens of thousands to protest weekly through the city, so that the left can take the initiative. Unfortunately, Daniel’s account doesn’t help us.

    Daniel wants to convince us that “the anti-vax movement as a whole should be understood as far-right” but to do so he has to cherry pick his facts and bend them to serve his conclusions.

    So he quotes John Safran’s article in The Saturday Paper because John interviewed some rather coy Nazis. But John’s article actually makes a different point – it points to the enormous diversity among those attending. Some undoubtedly with reactionary or whacky ideas, but not led by the Nazis, who are small fish in a very big pond.

    Then there’s Roy Morgan’s research. We’re told the top suburbs for those attending outside Parliament are South Morang, Tarneit, Cranbourne, Langwarrin, Werribee, Caroline Springs and Sunshine – and Daniel argues that such suburbs have “very few meaningful progressive traditions” and are “among the most alienated from politics”.

    There’s a grain of truth to that. And I’m sure that some of those protesting residents are self-employed tradies or small business people. But it’s hard to come up with a list of Melbourne suburbs that are more working class and solid Labor.

    Werribee is in the electorate of Lalor, held by the ALP last election on 62.41 per cent, two-party preferred. Then there’s South Morang in Scullin, held by Labor on a wafer-thin 2PP margin of 71.66 per cent. Holt, which covers Cranbourne, is almost a marginal – Labor’s 2PP vote a mere 58.7 per cent in 2019.

    Yet Daniel wants to paint these people as fodder for the right because they are home owners (almost certainly in debt to their eyeballs) and home improvers. How do we know they are home improvers? Roy Morgan doesn’t actually tell us but I think it’s reasonable to guess it’s because their phones have pinged in Bunnings. If that’s a sign of reaction, well arrest me now – I love a snag (onions on top) and a potter around the aisles.

    Daniel also notes but draws no conclusions from the part of the Roy Morgan research that shows that those labelled the “600 Fair Go” were three times more likely to be on the “freedom rallies” than their weight in broader society.

    What defines the “600 Fair Go”? Roy Morgan tells us they are: “Struggling to make ends meet, looking for a better deal in life, making the best of things or simply pessimistic, cynical and likely to feel they get a raw deal out of life; the Fair Go community are lower income Australians.”

    Yes, there are undoubtedly anti-vax hippies and wellness freaks on the rallies. Religious oddballs and anti-communists. But Daniel’s own evidence tends to suggest that the preponderance of those marching are from working class suburbs and many of them are doing it tough.

    Many of these should be the left’s people. But Daniel argues that those on the rallies should be “demoralised to the point of making them reconsider their militancy”. This is a polite way of saying their protests should be broken up. Not only is this pure fantasy, it misses the point – the “freedom rallies” need to be broken politically. The left needs to raise demands that benefit working class people who are doing it tough.

    Daniel’s second proposal – a mass rally called by the unions – shows the weakness of his position. Of course, a mass rally would be tremendous: but what would be its demands?

    Daniel is part of the authoritarian left which has cheered on the Victorian Labor government as it has savaged working class communities with curfews, harsh lockdowns, massive fines, vaccine mandates that have led to job losses, enhanced pandemic powers, over-policing and the muzzling of the right to protest.

    Instead of public health measures we’ve been pummelled with police measures, punching down on individual workers and putting responsibility for the pandemic on to them, rather than on to Morrison’s botched vaccine rollout or the damage done by casualisation or the way many employers have pushed workers to work in unsafe conditions.

    If Andrews has been criticised by the authoritarian left, it’s been for going soft – giving up on locking down to zero.

    To be effective, a union rally would need to demand secure work with sick pay for all, paid vaccination leave, a doubling of JobSeeker, air purification devices in every confined workplace, and the right of workers to strike if the employer doesn’t deliver safety.

    That could split confused or fearful workers away from hardened conspiracy theorists and the far right.

    Daniel writes that: “A few on the left have argued that somehow, we should ‘relate’ to [the ‘freedom movement’], perhaps by attending rallies under acceptable slogans.”

    In doing so, I’m pretty sure he’s referring to Solidarity, the organisation to which I belong, which has argued against police measures and for public health measures.

    For the record we have never argued to “relate” to the rallies, as he describes. But don’t take my word for it – read it here: https://www.solidarity.net.au/articles/coronavirus/

  2. Daniel, if you are breaking, or have broken, with CARF because you can see, like much of the rest of the left can see, that their attempt to push the anti-vaccine rallies off the streets has mobilised nobody, then good on you. And yes, you are also correct there has been no left response from the unions to the pandemic. And yes that is what is required. So how do we build that? We don’t build it by cheering lockdowns, cheering fines, cheering mandates, cheering sackings for refusing the jab, cheering law and order legislation, cheering the army on the streets, and a fascination with anti-vaccine rallies. That just pushes people to the right. A left worthy of the name starts with fighting to address the grievances of the masses. Not dismissing them as insufficiently pure.

  3. Pro war, pro Military Industrial Complex, pro corporate monopolies, pro privatisation, anti China, anti Russia, anti Julian Assange, anti union, anti ABC and anti protests.
    It seems Daniel, that the far Right rule this country. With an iron fist.
    And guess what?
    They all wear suits, many of them have law degrees and they infest both ‘sides’ of politics.

  4. Thanks for the article. I would also like to add to this following statement:

    “Interestingly, although people from the subcontinent make up a significant and growing proportion of recent migrants to Australia, flags from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are not visible. Perhaps this is because migrants from these backgrounds are over-represented among frontline and precarious workers.”

    From my experience on the sub-continent, the other reason might be the huge importance vaccines continue to play. This extends to Covid vaccines, which are hard to come by, but also to other vaccines. To take only one example – polio exists and continues to kill people. If you see the firsthand effects of diseases that we can treat, and that are all but eliminated in ‘the West’, then you know that vaccines save lives. The science simply backs up the lived experience.

  5. As the Omicron variant daily globalises & international travellers return hereabouts there is a need for planet wide understanding (other readers may share more about regime’s and mobilisations by Nationalists in Africa, Asia, Latin America …)

    A view from Italy 🇮🇹 (where the neofascists also attacked a union premises.)

    https://www.angryworkers.org/2021/12/10/we-cant-leave-the-idea-of-freedom-to-the-far-right-sergio-bologna-on-the-green-pass/

    And from USA 🇺🇸 where the Right proclaim #AustraliaHasFallen and protest the “tyranny” of Socialised Health Care and mask mandates to slow spread of air born corona viruses 🦠
    http://davidrovics.blogspot.com/2021/12/must-we-call-them-fascists.html

  6. I’m not entirely sure why this article passed Overland’s editorial scrutiny – there are more than a few problems with this account. Starting with the first sentence, there seems to be no strong evidence of political motivation for the ‘hit and run’ that occurred on 30 November. According to an ABC report: ‘The driver, 32, of no fixed address, was also charged with theft of a motor vehicle, reckless conduct endangering serious injury, driving in a dangerous manner, failing to render assistance after an accident, possessing a drug of dependence and other drug-related offences.’ This incident has little or nothing to do with the main arguments of the article. Lopez writes: ‘the left must develop a grounded analysis that answers the questions: what is the political content of the anti-vax movement, what is its social base, and what are its dynamics?’ Perhaps we could begin by sticking to the facts.

    Lopez’s opening snafu belies his more general interest in clearly defining the Melbourne protests as a homogenous basket of ‘far right’ deplorables. He does this by relying on some fairly surface analysis and generalisations. Can the view from a car window during a ‘drive through Point Cook’ be counted as serious content for political analysis? Lopez seems to think so. He writes that Point Cook has ‘countless very new, very uniform and fairly substantial family homes [with] security roller-shutters installed on their windows and large satellites on the roof’. This, according to him, ‘is a hint.’ But of what? His summary strike me as bourgeois wowzerism rather than an attempt to make a serious political point. It also seems a little crazy, too, that after two years of lockdown, someone might seek to blame social atomization on television rather than enforced social isolation.

    In another comment on this article, David Glanz notes Daniel’s proposal of a mass rally called by the unions and asks: ‘but what would be its demands?’ According to social media, Daniel thinks that one of the key outcomes of a rally would be that it would ‘strengthen Andrews position’. Its very convenient for the state ALP government to paint any opposition to their response to the pandemic as ‘far right’ lunacy. But I’m not sure how this helps the left’s position.

  7. That is all very interesting, but I think it is misguided to focus on that aspect. It is tempting to dismiss the opponents of COVID action in that way, but ultimately unfair and unproductive. Far better to quote the overwhelming majority of scientific experts who advocate the vax, and the real-time analysis which they rely on.
    That is because the anti-COVID vaxxers are actually being informed by people with scientific expertise and credibility. The point is that their experts are in the minority, and appear to be speculating, rather than making a judgment based on the data.
    Hence, its worthwhile respecting the vax opponents and offering alternative analyses for them to consider, especially if you have considered their experts before dismissing them.
    It wouldnt hurt either to admit that we arent certain, but we have growing confidence in the mainstream science, based on data and experience.
    2 examples of anti-COVID vax experts: Robert Malone and Dr Michael Yeadon.
    https://rumble.com/vmy8s1-the-grant-cardone-and-robert-malone-video-removed-from-youtube.html?fbclid=IwAR1Q0cJ5mEt543yb2VqHNVfW0WIwkCuSz22zSSM4ZXeb7lC3OWQVmmZCvQg

    https://gloria.tv/share/gw3Ebq7YEBSX3BWjUMSnKE4Rw
    In contrast, we can point to ongoing worldwide studies, published in Nature-which show that the vax is effective, and that its effectiveness is not waning against death and hospitalization, as far as we can tell eg: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-02532-4?utm_content=INTRO&fbclid=IwAR2bqCyH4U4ch5NhBvsoyvLPtIqsDMQbzILmAzt8Ovlwyi1nZQGkpQudpGM

  8. Fascinating. So this counts as a socialist article these days? I would think it is noteworthy that Roy Morgan (an international market research company) manages to track individual phones, to the extent that they can apparently analyse and report on activity and attitudes from this, and we just quote it like it’s a just fact of life, like the trees and the birds. Also interesting that the article does not mention even in passing months of brutality by the police and army on the streets of Melbourne, when (unsuccessful) pandemic controls were enforced, not with education and support, but with armored cars and rubber bullets. Could this have contributed in some small way to dissatisfaction with government and media among the uneducated suburban home improvers who now join the anti-vax rallies in their thousands?

  9. Great article, and analysis of the confluences between culture and class.

    Very true in pointing out the contradictions of some on the Left who would have no truck with One Nation, but treat these rallies differently…

    I think part of it, as well, is that rallies are almost always bigger in Melbourne, both on the left and the right. I do think these will fizzle out at some point and then, the conservative attendees will go back to “hearth and home”.

    Your depiction of the anti-vaxxers as beyond roller shutters and satellite tv and / or in the wellness movement pretty much sums up every anti-vaxxer I am aware of in my personal / work life. Best to ignore them!

  10. This article reads as though you are an overeducated entitled child, upset that he has to work hard to be successful in life. One who demands the government provide everything he needs for him. You and any supporting this worldview are children, whose parents failed to teach them the concept of personal responsibility.

    It is not surprising that as a far-leftie you paint any opposition as far right. You are unable to accept that most people fall within a spectrum, not extreme sides. The vast majority I speak to in our movement are Centrist Libertarians, favouring less government involved in everyday life. Much like an independent adult should.

    The hypocrisy of the far-left’s adoption of communism while speaking out against facism never ceases to amaze me. Anyone who has read a history book will understand that a communist state cannot be achieved without using facist methods.

  11. Mike I agree with your sentiments. There are a few people who make a lot of noise about an issue. They also tend to say that the majority view is wrong!! I thought that we lived in a democracy for all Australians!!

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