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How Protest Movements Define The Limits Of COVID Lockdowns, And The Perils Of COVID Denial – OpEd

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The devastatingly incompetent and corrupt government of Boris Johnson

Ever since the first Covid lockdown was declared in the UK, on March 23 last year, the British people have, for the most part, complied with the rules laid down by a government that was spectacularly ill-equipped to deal with a global pandemic, that has handled it with shattering incompetence, and that has also engaged in cronyism to an unprecedented extent.

Elected in December 2019 to ‘Get Brexit Done’ by just 29% of the registered electorate, Boris Johnson stacked his cabinet with inadequate, second-rate politicians whose only requirement for being chosen was that they were fanatically committed to Britain leaving the EU, an astonishingly misguided policy of national suicide that came out of David Cameron’s shameful capitulation to Euro-sceptics in his own party, and the threat posed by UKIP under Nigel Farage.

Stoked by decades of tabloid misinformation about the EU, by gutter appeals to racism and xenophobia, and by the manipulation of social media by dark, far-right forces in the US and the UK, a slim majority of those who could be bothered to vote in the EU referendum in June 2016 voted to leave the largest, friction-free economic trading bloc in human history — with the 27 other countries of the EU, on whom half our trade depends — for a bleakly fanciful notion of independent, isolationist, nationalist sovereignty, in which the economic damage that would follow was shamefully denied.

When the Covid pandemic first emerged in January 2021, Johnson was too busy waving flags to celebrate our sorry departure from the EU on January 31 to recognise its significance. Throughout late January and February, he failed to attend five meetings of COBRA (the Civil Contingencies Committee that is convened to handle matters of national emergency), and breezily touted “herd immunity” — in other words, a laissez-faire notion of “survival of the fittest” — as government policy, only changing his position when scientists indicated that hundreds of thousands of people would die if the virus was allowed to circulate unchecked. When he finally declared a lockdown on March 23, it was too late for tens of thousands of people who died because of his inaction.

The government then wasted tens of billions of pounds on doomed, outsourced solutions to the problems of tracking, tracing and confining the virus, and addressing the chronic shortage of PPE (personal protective equipment), handing contracts to their friends, for services that they didn’t ever seem to have been qualified or capable of providing, and to the bloated multi-national management services companies that governments since Thatcher have all empowered and enriched for incompetently implementing and running services at far greater cost than was the case when these were provided by the public sector.

A case in point, of course, is the NHS, which, despite its creeping privatisation and underfunding since 2011, remains, at heart, a public service that is not only dealing with the frontline effects of the pandemic (despite a chronic lack of capacity caused through Tory cuts), but has also recently demonstrated that it can handle the rollout of tens of millions of vaccinations.

Lockdown One and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter

Given the government’s extraordinary uselessness, it was no surprise, last March, when people — shocked by reports of the scale of deaths in Italy and New York — began to implement their own lockdown before the dithering Boris Johnson finally woke up to what was going on.

From two weeks before lockdown was declared, streets and shops began emptying, and when lockdown came it was no surprise that, initially, compliance was almost total. Shops shut, streets emptied, and the entertainment and hospitality sectors ground to a halt. In those early months, I captured the apocalyptic emptiness of the West End and the City in daily photos taken on bike rides for my photo-journalism project ‘The State of London.’

What came next, as people dutifully stayed at home, only venturing out for an hour a day for exercise in their local parks, and for shopping in local supermarkets, was a heatwave that lasted for months — a clear sign of profound environmental change, as climate campaigners, including Extinction Rebellion, had been pointing out from autumn 2018 and throughout 2019 — but while the hottest year on record was alarming, it mitigated the worst, isolation-based impact of the lockdown.

And then, inevitably, as some young people in particular realised that Covid was not actually a deadly plague — and particularly so, in their case — illegal raves and house parties took place, but when frustration finally spilled out into the public sphere, it came via what, to my mind, was unexpected — a massive outpouring of anger and indignation following the murder, by a policeman in Minneapolis, of George Floyd, a black man, on May 25, 2020.

Suddenly, under the banner of Black Lives Matter— which had first emerged in the US in 2014 — people, mainly young, gathered in public to protest about racist oppression, past and present, that has never been adequately addressed.

I attended one of the early rallies, in Hyde Park, on June 3, which was the first time I’d been in a crowd of people since lockdown began. I was initially quite unnerved, but it soon dawned on me that almost everyone was wearing masks, and that, as the death count had fallen from a peak of 1,224 on April 21 to 249 the day before the rally, it was as safe as it was ever going to be to gather in significant numbers while taking precautions.

On June 7, I attended an even bigger rally outside the US Embassy in Nine Elms, on the same day that campaigners in Bristol toppled a long-hated statue of slave trader Edward Colston and threw it into Bristol Harbour, ending decades of frustration that it had not been dealt with officially before.

Eight days later, “non-essential” shops were allowed to reopen, and desperate shoppers returned to Oxford Street, but while the impetus of the BLM movement got rather sidelined over the topic of statues, it was inspiring to see that, after two months of lockdown, when it was clearly becoming safe to gather again in large numbers and with most people accepting the need to wear masks, it was injustice rather than hedonism and shopping that had brought people together to demand change.

Throughout the summer, as the daily death rate plummeted almost to zero, and the heatwave continued, something resembling normality returned, although it was sometimes slightly unhinged, as was clear when beach resorts were absolutely swamped with people over-celebrating their freedom.

In south east London, where I live, and where, along with everywhere else, we were starved of live culture, because venues couldn’t work out how to reopen safely without haemmorhaging money that, for the most part, they didn’t have, my lifeline was the weekly jazz jams in my local park, put on by enterprising young musicians, who sometimes hooked up with Black Lives Matter campaigners, and who continued until they were eventually shut down by over-vigilant police — although they were, at least, then able to relocate to one of the few venues that had reopened, a community-run theatre and performance space in Deptford.

Lockdowns Two and Three, the murder of Sarah Everard and Priti Patel’s open assault on the right to protest

And so to September, when the infection rates again started to rise, and social isolation was once more on the agenda. Suppressing information about a new, and much more infectious variant, the government once more dithered horribly, only locking down in November, reopening for two dangerously hectic weeks in December, and then consigning us all to prolonged isolation once more in the run-up to Christmas, and immediately after,. These various delays caused, it is estimated, an additional 27,000 deaths, and it is no surprise that calls for an official inquiry into the government’s mishandling of the crisis — in which, to date, 126,000 people have officially died — continue to grow louder.

From November 2, when Lockdown Two began, until now, it has been 140 days — four and a half long months — throughout which life has become rather like Groundhog Day, with impacts on people’s mental health, in significant numbers, that are genuinely troubling. But again, as the death count has fallen, from a peak of 1,725 deaths on January 27, to just 52 deaths on March 14, the justification for continued isolation has evaporated.

And just as, last May, the trigger for widespread protest was the murder of George Floyd, this time around it was the death of Sarah Everard, a young woman murdered after being abducted from Clapham Common, for which a serving police officer has been arrested and charged.

On Saturday March 13, as women gathered on Clapham Common to remember Sarah, their peaceful candle-lit vigil — in which people were, for the most part, sensibly wearing masks — was violently suppressed by the police, an act of really quite astonishing insensitivity, which provoked a huge outpouring of anger against the police and home secretary Priti Patel, and with few people impressed by the police’s arguments that they were defending public safety under the Covid restrictions.

This anger and outrage was amplified when it became apparent that Patel, a dangerously bigoted authoritarian, had just introduced a new bill, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which seeks to criminalise non-violent protest, based, in particular, on her hatred of Extinction Rebellion and the statue-toppling protestors against racism. The bill also targets Gypsy and Traveller communities, and it was receiving its second reading in the House of Commons on Monday March 15 and Tuesday March 16.

Huge protests took place on the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, with the voices of Middle England adding their support from afar in considerable numbers, and it is to be hoped that the government will rethink their support for Patel’s horribly intolerant and anti-democratic impulses as the bill goes through its committee stage, before being passed to the House of Lords and returning to the Commons for a final vote.

But again, as lockdown reaches the phase when its strictest restrictions are no longer tenable, it has been immensely reassuring to see people out on the streets, demanding sweeping changes. I very much hope that campaigners work out how to co-operate, across the fields of all their legitimate grievances — on the environment, on racism, and on women’s rights — to prevent not just Priti Patel’s dreadful bill, but also to demand sweeping changes to our priorities as a whole, so that there can be no return to the dysfunctional world that existed before Covid hit, in all its deranged manifestations.

These include the toxic environmental damage of unfettered global tourism, the unfair and environmentally damaging construction industry, destroying buildings that should be refurbished to build offices that no one needs, and housing that no one can afford, and the job crisis exposed via Covid, as well as those highlighted by protestors — the persistent crimes of racism and sexism, and the need to act urgently to mitigate the worst effects of a global environmental catastrophe that is already underway.

We need urgent change, we need it now, and it’s not even conceivable unless everyone concerned accepts the importance of working together to challenge and to thoroughly undermine this most dysfunctional of governments.

An important footnote about Covid denial

In stark contrast to all of the above, of course, are the Covid-deniers, who either believe it is a hoax, or say that is just like the flu, who deny the actual excess death rate over the last year, and who also seem blithely unconcerned by the long-term damage that “long Covid” is causing, with current estimates that up to a million people may need treatment for long-term problems with  “exhaustion, brain fog, chest pains and breathing problems”, as the Guardian explained two weeks ago.

Since lockdown began a year ago, the Covid-deniers have also mobilised in resistance, particularly in summer and autumn, with well-attended rallies and marches, although nothing prepared the authorities for what happened yesterday, when, as part of what was described as a ‘World Wide Rally for Freedom & Democracy’, with events taking place in at least three dozen cities worldwide, tens of thousands of Covid-deniers marched from Hyde Park to the City of London and back throughout a long afternoon of disturbingly palpable but misplaced anger, in which the police, hugely outnumbered, took a hands-off approach, in contrast to their manhandling of peaceful, mask-wearing women the week before at Clapham Common. It was the first time I’d observed a Covid denial march, and it was genuinely quite disturbing to see the barely controlled fury on display from so many people, who, I suspect, spend their every waking hour obsessing about how the government is trying to kill, poison or enslave them as part of a global conspiracy.

The Covid-deniers are particularly obsessed with masks, denying their proven efficacy as the most obvious frontline protection against the transmission of the virus, and they rail against the requirement to wear a mask in enclosed spaces as an infringement on their human rights, imposed by a police state, and as a symbol of enslavement. None of them seem to have any sympathy for people like Gary Matthews, a fellow conspiracy theorist, who died in January aged 46, contracting the virus after refusing to wear a mask or engage in social distancing, or the 30-year old Texan man who attended a “Covid party”, and who, according to a nurse who was with him shortly before he died, said, “I think I made a mistake, I thought this was a hoax, but it’s not.”

The Covid-deniers are also obsessed with the dangers posed by the various vaccines that have been developed, persuaded that they are intended to cull the population, ignoring the long history of vaccinations that have eradicated smallpox, that have largely eradicated TB and polio, and that, every winter, prevent numerous people from dying of the flu, and also ignoring how, quite genuinely, the vaccination of the population seems to be the only way out of endlessly repeating lockdowns for countries like ours that have developed an obsession with personal liberty over the common good.

A robust track, take and isolate programme would do away with the need for widespread vaccinations, but imagine how that — with its fundamental intrusiveness into our movements and associations — would play with people for whom even the requirement to wear a mask on a brief shopping trip is seen as a manifestation of fascism.

Arching over all the above is the Covid-deniers’ belief that Covid and the lockdowns are part of a global conspiracy to control and enslave us — an unusual conclusion to reach when, in the UK, we have a government that, via Brexit, is doing its utmost to cut all co-operative ties with the rest of the world. Even more absurd, of course, is the notion that our leaders, whose every waking moment has been spent obsessing about how to maximise the profits of capitalist enterprises — consistently overriding workers’ rights and the environmental costs of capitalism’s driving obsession with endless growth and shareholder profit — would engage in a conspiracy to do as much damage as possible to so many of the components of that profit-driven world.

As much as online companies like Amazon and the various sweat shop-based ”fast fashion” outlets have been profiting immensely from Covid during the lockdowns, the real estate business — the driver of much of the economy for the last 20 years, which has been reaping hugely inflated profits from extortionate rents and leases — faces an unprecedented existential threat far worse than the aftermath of the global economic crash of 2008.

Most of the UK’s retail environment is in danger of collapse, most offices have shut down, as workers have been productively working from home, happily avoiding the crush and expense of daily commuter journeys, and the damage is even spreading — albeit far less gravely — to the over-priced and exploitative world of residential rents.

As well as endangering a huge component of capitalism’s profiteering in the 21st century, these changes provide previously undreamt-of opportunities to re-think the ways in which we live and work, and perhaps even to throw off the shackles of an economy that has been largely driven by the few strangling the many through the cost of running businesses and the costs of having to have somewhere to live.

However, none of this will happen if people’s energies are diverted into conspiracy theories, many of which are not only delusional, but also seem inexorably linked to sowers of discord on the far-right, who, via social media in particular, have been engaged in the successful mass manipulation of susceptible people in the US and the UK since the EU referendum and the rise of Donald Trump.  

Like other conspiracy theorists before them, the Covid-deniers’ delusional obsession with being the only people to see the “truth” and to stand up for “freedom” damages the hugely important efforts by others to stand up and properly challenge the slow drift towards authoritarianism — or even, if we use the word judiciously, fascism — that the likes of Priti Patel, and the government she represents, are seeking to implement under cover of the restrictions imposed to tackle the global health crisis that Covid represents.

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to his RSS feed (he can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see his definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, and, if you appreciate his work, feel free to make a donation.

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