A 2022 moment. Lets hope its a good one, without any fear
The lyrics of that song by John Lennon seemed naively optimistic even back in 1971, at the start of that hey-decade of the iconic Christmas pop anthem. Happy Christmas (War is Over) – obviously it wasn’t, even back then; and fifty years later, ‘I hope you have fun’ is no longer a given, given the past two festive seasons we’ve had.
Wishing one’s fellow humans an absence of fear also seems a tall order. I am currently reading ‘A State of Fear:How the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid-19 pandemic’ by Laura Dodsworth, which traces government and media campaigns to manipulate fear in populations through history, and in the past sixty years in particular; a direct line from The Cold War, through The War on Terror to the Covid War, all of which have which pitted our psyches against an unseen enemy: a distant super-power; brown people with explosive devices strapped to their bodies; and finally our own bodies and those of our fellow citizens. The sections on the Government’s Behavioural Science Units and the ethics of manipulating behaviour and choices without our consent, through the deliberate triggering of disproportionate fear responses, are particularly chilling.
I never felt the disabling fear which many of the population experienced as a result of these communications – and Dodsworth’s book gives verbatim accounts from ordinary people whose lives were paralysed, and in some cases destroyed, by fear of The Pandemic and are now angry as hell about it – but had a growing sense of unease as the rhetoric grew. Looking back, although I was a willing participant in the ‘responsible’ behaviours required of us during the first wave of the pandemic, I was unsettled by the tone and scale of the reporting rather than the information itself. Language was melodramatic and alarmist in ways which felt to be previously the domain of The Daily Mail (unofficial mission statement ‘to scare the fuck out of old people’) and I switched off Radio 4 which I had listened to morning and evening almost all my life because it seemed to have abandoned balanced reporting and become part of the fear machine. I felt particularly troubled by the blunt instrument ‘Don’t Kill Granny’ campaign aimed at teenagers, which seemed cruel and insensitive for those young people who had lost elderly relatives to the virus and added guilt to the mental health burdens being piled on the young.
Because I lived in Hebden Bridge, the virtue-signalling around compliance became visible early in the process. The pious posted on the community Facebook page with judgemental rants about people not wearing masks in the street (never a requirement by law), drinking coffee in the square (whilst listening to buskers! What wicked imprudence!) as if they believed such statements, in and of themselves, would somehow guarantee entry to the Kingdom of Heaven. Folk could be observed entering shops with a strange, whole-body movement discernible as performative hand sanitising, interpreted as contemporary dance; and body-swerved anybody who approached them from a distance in a bizarre street choreography which seemed to draw its inspiration from the push and torque of repelling magnetic forces.
During the harshest periods of lockdown, absurd stories were reported of the actions of over-zealous police officers, such as the fining of two women walking five miles from their homes in Derbyshire, whose carry-out coffees were interpreted as ‘picnics’ (their fines were later rescinded). Such incidents were widespread and, for all their comedy value and redolence of Constable Savage on the Not The Nine O’Clock News sketch, rang alarm bells. In other places in the world, wilful misapplication of the law by police officers resulted in citizens getting shot or suffocated to death.
from A State of Fear by Laura Dodsworth, Pinter & Martin 2021
Lets just take a moment before you decide I am a conspiracy-theorist-covid-denying-tinfoil-helmeted loon. Let me try to describe where I sit in my ‘beliefs’. We are inside history and only hindsight will allow us to see – maybe – just how much of a threat this pandemic has been and whether the language, rhetoric and attitudes were justified or proportionate. I have never believed the virus to be a hoax, a 5G induced conspiracy, a Chinese lab-designed weapon or even ‘just flu’. I do believe it likely that novel viruses will become more widespread in homo-sapiens as we destroy habitats and drive beyond-human extinction so that they will jump species having lost their natural hosts. For a period in 2020, an exceptional volume of severe illness and excess death resulted for a small percentage of the many who contracted this one. For others, protracted, long term post-viral symptoms collapsed their lives. I know people whose loved ones died of and with Covid; early in the first wave we lost a dear school friend with a health condition for which contracting Covid19 proved fatal. The sadness of that moment, watching her funeral remotely, her partner sitting alone in the chapel without those dearest to him nearby… I recognise that every death held that acute tragedy and misery for those around the affected person, exacerbated by the isolation forced upon us all.
So let’s take a moment to remember those we lost. Then lets take another breath to consider this: most of us who got the virus did not die – 98% worldwide in fact (and a higher still percentage among those with no pre-existing conditions), and 87% have made a full recovery [i]. Stating these facts and suggesting that the level of fear generated in the population is not commensurate with the threat level does not deny or detract from the the pain of those affected by the death of a loved one or suffering from long term post-viral syndromes.
All of these are thoughts I have had and facts I have gleaned more recently. I have tried to balance deep respect for people’s lived experience with my equally profound scepticism for public communications and policy. For a long time all I felt was a growing sense of unease and irritation around the language, the tone, the virtue-signalling, the public judgement and shaming of the non-compliant, the more nonsensical applications of a set of ever-changing rules… a feeling something was not right, that we were all being played above and beyond what might be considered sensible and prudent public health measures, justified by the statement This Is A Deadly Threat To Us All!
I work in the theatre and was dismayed to read in April 2021 an article in the Guardian [ii] in which various luminaries of the entertainment industry were driving a campaign for Covid passports to be introduced to enable theatres to re-open. To me, this seemed like a betrayal of everything I, and those I have collaborated most closely with, have worked for. These West End luvvies were happy enough to swing in behind the inclusion and access agenda back when they thought it would bring them bigger audiences, maybe some additional funds; but as soon as the shit hits the fan, they’re begging for exclusionary and divisive measures that will put all but the most high propensity theatre-goers off the idea of walking into a theatre foyer. I wanted nothing to do with any venue, project or event that would contemplate keeping people out. I still don’t; if we can’t find ways of making work that is safe for all, why the fuck do it?
One image that had been playing on my consciousness with increasing insistence is Plato’s Cave Allegory. Plato invites us to visualise a cave in which citizens are seated in a line facing the back wall of a cave. Behind them is a constructed wall and behind the wall a fire. Soldiers, or shady officials of some sort, carry objects in front of the fire so that they are projected like shadow puppets on the rear of the cave. The people sitting facing the back of the cave believe these objects to be reality. Plato then asks us to imagine that one individual breaks free and emerges from the cave. After briefly being blinded by the light, they see what is outside the cave in ‘real’ reality. They return to the cave to tell the others, but after the sunlight outside, they cannot see in the dark. The people in the cave think that going outside has made the individual blind and also declare them to be mad. The analogy seems to be an enduring archetypal metaphor, and has been summoned frequently in relation to modern culture, notably the plots of The Matrix and The Truman Show. In all cases, once the individual has stepped outside the ‘simulation’ of reality they have been force-fed, they cannot return to re-live it, however painful living outside the cave, or matrix, might be.
January 2022. I am starting to feel like the individual who ventured outside the cave, and I am starting to feel real fear. Not from the virus – I’ve just had 12 days of that which felt like a mild, if persistent, flu. There is a new fear in town and in the media in what we previously considered ‘civilised’ countries (whatever that can possibly mean). Fear of the Unvaccinated.
The rhetoric has ramped up again, but this time the enemy is not the virus itself, but the non-compliant. “A Pandemic of the Unvaccinated” Joe Biden called it. In Australia they are being confined to their homes, effectively under house arrest; in France, Macron has just described them as ‘non citizens’; In Canada Trudeau has called the Unvaccinated “misogynists and racists”. Public health messages from local councils are telling people to keep themselves and their children away from the Unvaccinated. In Belgium, just before Christmas, you could watch scenes of heras fencing, erected to keep the Unvaccinated out of Christmas markets, being torn down by the excluded crowds (I can’t personally imagine rioting for the right to eat hot pork and drink cheap Gluwein in the street but hey, each to their own and we should take a moment to consider what Christmas is actually supposed to stand for).
Friends have suggested that unvaccinated people who are in hospital with Covid are ‘undeserving’ or even that they should not be treated… Whoah! Let’s just take a cotton-picking moment – and think where that leads us: an acceptance that healthcare should be denied to anyone whose life choices increase their risk of hospitalisation? So anyone who engages in extreme sports? Or smokes? Or takes drugs? Or drinks excessively? Or eats raw fish? Or is obese? Or rides a motorbike? Or goes to football matches? That supposedly liberal, intelligent people are prepared to even contemplate venturing down that road tells us just how successful the campaign of misleading information from authority figures, designed to drive people to get vaccinated – or now, boosted – has been. ‘90% of people in intensive care are unvaccinated’ is the quote being repeated. What Boris Johnson actually said was that 90% of people in ICU had not received a booster. What he omitted to mention was that these figures were from a tiny sample between July and November 2021, before the booster campaign kicked in. By the time he made the statement, about 48% of ICU patients were unvaccinated – only slightly higher than the proportion of un-boosted people in the general UK population. [iii] I include these figures not because I consider myself some sort of amateur statistician, but to demonstrate how easily debunked these misleading statements are, yet how transmissible once present in the population, with toxic consequences in terms of public attitudes. A deadly pandemic of propaganda.
Let us take a moment to soberly consider what happens when a whole section of a community blamed for society’s ills, become dehumanised and ‘othered’. History, some of it very recent, tells us it starts with language and ends in tragedy.
Our household had Covid between Christmas and New Year. Everyone except my younger son, the one unvaccinated member. I’m just slipping that in as a wry anecdote, but the latest wave of the omicron variant has exposed the fallacy that vaccination protects the group. Literally everybody I know who has had the virus this season – and that is a lot of people – are triple jabbed.
I am triple jabbed. Each time I received an invitation to vaccination, I weighed up the risks and benefits, in the same way I did before deciding to take, and continue to take, the contraceptive pill, hormone replacement therapy, anti-depressants, anti-biotics, anti-inflammatories, anti-fungal medications and a host of other treatments which had undergone testing and usage in the field over a much, much longer period that the Covid vaccine. I looked at the incidence of adverse – and very rarely fatal (although this data has to be searched for across multiple sources and is not available in any one location) [iv]– outcomes from the vaccine; the forecast reduced likelihood of serious illness, infection and transmission; and considered all these factors against my own personal health status: healthy, reasonably fit, in all likelihood among the ninety-nine plus percent who, if infected, would not have serious illness. And each time I decided to get the vaccine; whilst the forecasts were unproven and the data opaque, likely reduction of harm to others outweighed the risks. I made that decision, and I defend with my life the right of others to go through the same process of deliberation and come up with a different answer. I may do so myself next time.
Lets take a moment to consider the following questions: should we – can we – justify the marginalisation and vilification of those who have made a different decision? Measures which divide and exclude, which segregate sections of society? Can we justify the sacking of core workers from their jobs because of the medical choices they have made, thus putting further strain on already stretched health and care services.? Is it OK to coerce people in those jobs to receive treatment, and how does that sit with the principle of informed consent and bodily autonomy that has underpinned medical ethics since before the formation of the NHS? The virus has been spread as widely among the vaccinated population as the unvaccinated. If these measures persist in the face of clear evidence that the decision to take the vaccine is an individual therapeutic choice and not a social duty, then it will it not become clear that they are not about public health but about compliance?
And that is the truly frightening thing. That’s what keeps me awake at night. Because when compliance for its own sake becomes touted as a public good – not only by politicians and media, but by the people themselves – we are in a very dangerous place. Lets take a moment to think about that.