There’s another layer above the real and fantasised darkness, and it’s a good one. It involves people working away at the grass roots with and for their community.
BBC Radio Scotland’s Kaye Adams lives in a world where it’s fine to introduce her “Rule of 6” call-in with the comment “I know dozens of people who have just switched off” (from compliance, not her call-in, alas). Her guest “expert” says that the rule of 6 has been pulled out of a hat. Kaye’s not here to encourage compliance today!
However, the comment that really animates Kaye comes from a listener who advises that “…nobody gives their real details (for tracing purposes)…Everybody lies (about household groupings). In fact, according to this listener, we have all become liars as a result of lockdown restrictions.
It should come as no surprise that most of Kaye’s listeners agree, at least with caveats, with her barely concealed views. Nobody mentioned the fact that day one of the new rule is too early to assess its efficacy. For the vast majority of the listening public, you could be forgiven for thinking that sceptics Rule Britannia, led by the good ship BBC.
I inhabit a world where friends, relatives and strangers in public places appear to be politely compliant with restrictions, in the hope that we can move on together, to a better and brighter future. I do believe that this picture represents the majority of the population.
Kaye and the BBC arguably have their motives, but what motivates the broader spectrum of sceptics and conspiracy theorists? In particular, those who would rouse themselves to attend protests, such as those in Edinburgh and Glasgow in early September. Given that the protests were in part against masks and physical distancing, no safety precautions against the virus were in place.
Sources such as Spiked online, a go-to site for alt-right thinkers and conspiracy theorists, offers a platform to one of the key speakers at the Edinburgh event, Dr Malcolm Kendrick. Dr Kendrick is no stranger to controversy in the medical world. In 2018 he announced that there is “….a war between scientific enlightenment and the forces of darkness.” Of the Corona crisis, he advises “Stop Panicking – it’s over.”
The protest organiser, ex SNP Councillor Paddy Hogg takes the view that there is “no need for social distancing (nor masks)” during the pandemic and stated: “Lockdown will kill and destroy more people’s lives than the virus ever could have done.”
The Scottish Sun, supported by, well, Sun readers, reports that another speaker, Professor Richard Ennos wrote to Health Secretary Jeanne Freeman with an alternative Corona management model. It was subsequently rejected. Prof Ennos doesn’t see any benefit from the lockdown restrictions either.
Then there’s Professor Dolores Cahill, chair of the Irish Freedom Party, from University College Dublin. She was asked to resign from a leading EU scientific committee over aspects of her approach to Covid-19, such as “politicians and the media” are using Covid-19 “as a fear-mongering propaganda tool to try and take away rights from people and to make them more sick and to force vaccinations on us.”
While it may be unfair to suggest that all of the above have in some way been side-lined into the margins by peers, their views are pleasing for those looking towards Full House in Conspiracy Bingo.
There is a common theme running through the world of conspiracy, all the way to flat earthers at the end of the spectrum. That theme is Certainty. There is no room for self-doubt amongst an army of lost souls, all, ironically, bleating in unison that the rest of us are brainwashed sheep. The certainty must surely be empowering in such unstable times.
Conspiracy theory is to be found in any situation, of course, including the independence movement, where the myth that the 2014 referendum was rigged still prevails. As someone who has rallied Under One Banner with a broad spectrum of independence supporters, I know that there are times when we choose a side and run with it, suspending concerns that our underlying aims, values and core beliefs may be wildly different. We all want to feel that we are being heard, that our views matter.
Whether we’re looking at Brexit, Constitutional politics or Corona management, when we stand together, we are bound at that time, by a distrust in those in power, whether identified as elite, experts or governments. The parallels end there for those of us who value life, mourn and fear the death and illness already caused by the virus, and will not accept the dangers present in the unmasked, non-distanced gatherings, for whatever twisted reason is acceptable to the “free thinker”. For me, also real freedom comes in knowing that you can revise, develop and exchange ideas.
Certainly the media must take some responsibility for pushing those already on the edge of restriction compliance, way beyond it over to the dark side. Never a day goes by without a desperate presentation of conflicting pressures, or the temptation to ally with a line-up of outraged holiday-makers, returning home to quarantine measures. Every day there are pleas from business desperate to open, against a barrage of pressures for others to close. Every day we are offered the permission to interpret “fed up” as “bored of this game, not playing anymore”. Or just plain “cheated”.
None of this is to undermine the real and paralysing fears of unemployment and poverty, isolation and depression. It would be insulting to suggest that these pressures, without the conspiratorial tendencies, is turning people towards outrageously bizarre beliefs.
There’s nothing new in “truth seeking” during times of crisis. However, while full-on Covid deniers are still a fringe group in the UK, the draw towards right wing populism is a real threat. The likes of Trump, Bolsonaro and Farage can attract more attention in their dangerously simplified versions of reality, than Scotland’s sometimes openly anxious and uncertain Public Health team, headed by FM Nicola Sturgeon.
While the arrogantly characteristic certainty expressed by conspiracy theorists provides a compelling antidote to helplessness, the terrifyingly mundane and avoidable truth is that there is no need to disappear down the rabbit hole to see a tableau of hellishness.
Right here above ground are the opportunists and populists who will enhance their own power and wealth in plain sight. We may well end up with a cashless society, and an even more powerful and wealthy super elite. Yes we know that there are bad dudes out there, who will stop at nothing to prop up corrupt regimes and institutions. And we have always had to fight to gain and retain our freedoms. Nothing new there.
We know that greed for power and money has created the rot of extreme poverty, climate change, evolving disease, and all the other avoidable obscenities of the planet. However, some of the ideas now familiar to most of us, for instance that the virus has been deliberately delivered upon us as a weapon are nothing more than outrageously irresponsible, and dangerous fantasies. The paranoia, racism and “othering” found in the dark corners of some minds meets us at the level of disrespect for our safety.
To see PM Boris Johnson as anything other than lazy, privileged, greedy and opportunist is to embellish him with focus and direction that he does not deserve. The rot in his camp is visible. The “Rogue State” intention is to blatantly breach two international treaties; the Withdrawal Agreement and the Good Friday agreement. To plunder the devolved nations under the auspices of the UK Internal Market Bill, compromising human rights under their steam and even destroying any chance of a trade deal with the EU.
It’s all out there. When discredited politicians like Tony Blair and David Cameron question the integrity of the current government we are in trouble. So much better if we can actually stay alert to real, not fantastical threats. The UK government appears to have settled on piracy instead of tackling head on the personal financial difficulties following on from the end of the furlough scheme, and the devastating economic consequences of the pandemic. There are political, constitutional and economic choices to be made. They could even be good ones.
Mistakes have been made. Terrible mistakes, even with the best will of the more responsible politicians in the UK. Because this crisis is unprecedented in our lifetime. Because we are learning all the time. Because there can be no real experts in an unprecedented field of experience. Not yet. Not even the bevy of professors held aloft by the conspirators and sceptics.
While the conspirators were turning on the NHS, offering images of wards, emptied in preparation for the Covid onslaught as witnessed in Spain and Italy, to “prove” that there is no crisis, front-line workers were running themselves ragged trying to save actual lives. Not people suffering from a flu or a cold, but a devastating, potentially fatal or life-changing illness.
The virus is not a flu, or a cold. It’s not a competition either, about models or scores, and we can’t tally up the total of deaths because it’s not over yet, and it won’t be for a while yet without co-operation. For each other.
There’s another layer above the real and fantasised darkness, and it’s a good one. It involves people working away at the grass roots with and for their community. Projects like the Govanhill People’s food Pantry, or the amazing pulling together of the Barrowfield residents in Glasgow’s East end, to provide physically distanced but socially engaged support and entertainment.
There are Yes groups and think tanks still, or re-engaging online with new ideas. There are people committing time and energy to precious charities. There’s Living Rent, refugee and homeless projects, and of course just folk, still having kids or starting school, university and new jobs. There’s so much hope for the future by so many. We need to claw our way out of this together. It’s not over.