Since the summer, there has been a worrying growth of scepticism about the coronavirus. There have been claims that it is a manufactured, elite conspiracy, designed to control an increasingly fearful population. For some folk, the wearing of a medical mask equates to a fundamental attack on civil liberties and spells the doom of the much vaunted ‘western way of life’. Quite why wearing a cover over your face to prevent the spread of germs is tantamount to authoritarianism has never been properly explained by the coronavirus sceptics, but that is their position.
There is, however, an even more worrying position taken by other covid sceptics: coronavirus is real, but it has been over-hyped by the media and government, and it is not as dangerous as ‘they’ claim. Much of the coronavirus sceptic drive has come from the alt-right and groups like Q Anon, but there is a worrying trend of such material being shared by ordinary people on Facebook and other social media outlets.
Some posts allegedly come from professionals: doctors, nurses, scientists and the like, giving details of some new miracle cure, or dubious information, or ‘exposing’ some cover up. We say ‘allegedly’, because in many cases, it is far from clear where the original posts are coming from. Anyone can claim that they “… have a friend, who’s sister is a nurse, who works in a covid-19 ward…”. And, even if the original post was submitted in good faith, its substance may be exaggerated, twisted, or simply downright nonsense.
Of course, in a democracy we should always be on the look-out for any move towards authoritarianism, and, during a crisis like coronavirus, the Government must always be held to account. Groups such as Q Anon, and their various off-shoots on the evangelical and pro-Trump right, are very successfully feeding off the increasing suspicion of government motives. Indeed, they rely on anti-government feeling to push their agenda. “You don’t trust or like the current political establishment?”, they say. “You’re right not to, and here are a load more reasons why they are imposing on your individual liberty.” In this way, they can spread their agenda. If otherwise sensible folk believe the conspiracy theory, it gives it a tinge of respectability. We should never forget that a lie mixed with a little truth is much more dangerous than an outright lie.
Other blogs and websites have done an excellent job of debunking the myths and rumours that are circulating about coronavirus. That is not the job of this particular blog. But, there remains a question: Why are people apparently so susceptible to scepticism around coronavirus?
We suggest a number of reasons:
People long for normality. Those days before coronavirus seem so long ago. Although some restrictions are lifting, we still can’t enjoy many of things we used to. We still can’t go to the football, or go swimming, or go for a proper night out. In the supermarket we worry about social distancing, or wearing a mask. Pubs and coffee shops may be open, but many people are avoiding them, and they lack the chatter and conversation they once had. It is natural in highly stressful situations to long for normality, which often leads to wishful thinking that the problem is not as bad as it seems, or that it will ‘go away’ by itself.
There may also be a feeling that the dire consequences predicted at the start of the pandemic have not come true; and so that the situation is not as bad as it seems. There is an attitude, of “I’ve not been personally affected, so the risk is low”. This is again wishful thinking. The reality is that there have been tens of thousands of extra deaths in the United Kingdom due to coronavirus, and there would undoubtedly have been many more had ordinary citizens in Scotland, and the (dis)UK not shown a high degree of social solidarity and changed their behaviour. They must be congratulated on their efforts, but, unfortunately, the war is far from over, and the fight against the virus requires constant vigilance and social solidarity.
People also want to believe that coronavirus is not a serious problem for other reasons. It has already had a major economic impact, and we are in the midst of a major recession and escalating unemployment. Many businesses that were already operating on tiny margins before the pandemic have now been utterly sunk by the economic impact of coronavirus. And, whilst there has been a modest bounce back since the lifting of some restrictions, the economic impact of coronavirus will be with us for a long time to come, with
Many workers are now facing a very uncertain economic future, and, even where jobs have survived through the furlough scheme, employers will face hard decisions when the plug is pulled on government aid. The furlough scheme was, predictably, a typically Tory, “to he that hath shall be given”, solution. The guarantee to pay 80% of all workers’ salaries has had a disproportionate effect on the less well off. On a high salary, it might be a case of tightening your belt a little, but on a low salary, the 20% loss of income has all too often meant the difference between being able to live properly and barely surviving.
Some of the worst affected workers have been those who are self-employed tradespeople, many of whom have experienced a virtual collapse in their earnings during lockdown, whilst the government scheme designed to help them through this difficult time has been subject to a blizzard of complaints due to its byzantine design and often minimal financial aid.
In short, the main result of government aid to workers during the pandemic has been to keep the affluent well off, whilst the position of the low paid has got even worse.
And what if you are forced to go off sick, or to self-isolate? If you can’t work from home, that’s at least two weeks of not working. Statutory sick pay (SPP) is simply not enough. The extra one-off payment of £182 for people on Universal Credit (UC) or Working Tax Credit (WTC) who are self-isolating that is being trialled in Oldham, Blackburn with Darwen, and Pendle is a clear acknowledgement that current measures are insufficient.
The Eat Out to Help Out scheme, has given a boost to restaurants, but has demonstrated that an economy based on services, luxuries, and hospitality is simply not capable of standing any sort of economic shock. This is not to knock anyone who works or runs a business in those sectors, but they cannot provide the economic engine on which a society can run.
Coronavirus has demonstrated beyond all doubt that the neoliberal economic model of the last forty or so years is totally unfit for purpose. Before the crisis hit, many were hanging on by their fingertips, but now any illusion of safety has vanished. When the crisis is over, there may be a chance to create a fairer society, built on a more sustainable economic model and green technology, but we cannot take it for granted that this will happen. Already the Tories have demonstrated their desperation to return to business as usual, and, in the process, have worsened the impact of the ongoing pandemic on society, and on the economy.
Everyone is tired of the virus. We all long for the day we can socialise, and visit, and go out properly. We long for the days we can do all the things we used to do, but we cannot allow ourselves to be duped by conspiracy theories or covid-scepticism simply because it is economically or emotionally convenient. The ONLY way to defeat Coronavirus is through social solidarity, particularly solidarity with those at most risk, such as the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. Coronavirus is changing the world utterly; let us make sure that change is for the better.