Wish you could stand the “covidiot” in the corner and laugh at him? There are not enough dunces’ caps for all the covidiots out there. They come in planeloads returning from the Greek island of Zante, they congregate in Trafalgar Square to listen to David Icke bellow “Freedom!” while an over-excited Piers Corbyn jitters about. They manifest in the shape of Ian Brown, the Stone Roses frontman, who tweets: “NO LOCKDOWN NO TESTS NO TRACKS NO MASKS NO VAX #researchanddestroy.”
What do we do with such people beyond denouncing them? “Let’s hope they all infect each other” is the common sentiment, but people who believe that coranavirus is not real or not serious do not live in isolation. It may be comforting to imagine that they are a subset of the population and the rest of us are entirely sensible, but this is not true, is it? Covid denial is not confined to those who devour conspiracy theories, those who have morphed from militant anti-vaxxers to believe that coronavirus was invented by Bill Gates/the Chinese/the Jews to control us all so we are ready to be microchipped into subservience.
There is little you can say to such folk – and I know a couple – that doesn’t feed their stress and anxiety. What their stance gives them is a sense of certainty. It squashes the pain of being powerless and provides a belief system in which one feels one has access to some secret truth. That this acts as more protection than a mask or potentially a vaccine is a fantasy that is impervious to science, to evidence, to any rationality. It is even cruel. I saw someone on Twitter the other day tell the much-loved poet Michael Rosen that he had only imagined that he had Covid, the long-term effects of which Rosen is suffering.
Yet the denial implicit in covidiocy is not confined to the lunatic fringes. It is woven through government policy, though policy is too strong a word. As cases rise and the health secretary, Matt Hancock, looks spooked, we are sending kids back to school and young people to college. Why would our situation be so different from France, where there has also been a sharp increase in cases?
Yet again, Brexit is reminding us that this government is entirely incompetent, but let’s hope that something has been learned from the pandemic’s terrible first wave. Leaked government papers detailing the worst-case scenario for a second (a further 80,000 deaths) are grim.
Has the government lost control of the virus? It has never had control of it. This is why all the ‘“Get back to work” stuff emanating from Tory hawks is falling on closed ears. Large parts of the population have adapted far more quickly than our leaders. The “new normal” is a patchwork of individuals evaluating risk and making decisions. Young people will gather; older people will be more cautious. Those who don’t need to put themselves at risk in offices where social distancing is impossible are choosing not to. As ever, those with front-facing jobs continue to work. They simply do not have the choices that many of us agonise about.
Urging us back to “normal” to reboot the economy is another disavowal of risk. We cannot eradicate the virus, so we must live with it. The emotional somersaults required for us to do this are exhausting. One minute people cannot see their grandchildren, the next those children are back at school. We, all of us, are being asked to be a bit covidiot to get by.
Denial is of course a defence mechanism that enables us to pace our feelings of grief. We don’t want to think about death, so we deny it. The loss of the old ways of life is panic-inducing if we dwell on it. So some reject even the possibility of death, paradoxically increasing the risky behaviour that increases their chance of dying.
Our brains are working overtime to maintain a worldview that has been shaken. When Mark Dolan of talkRadio cuts his mask up live on air saying: “To save lives and get the country back on track, the only option is to get back to normal”, it is infuriating. To see what he is doing as a strategy to defend against his own fear requires more compassion than many of us can muster.
The shibboleths of identity politics – race/gender/class – constantly evoked in the woke wars, seem to me to be entirely inadequate for how we live now. New identities have been formed that have way more political thrust. One of these is Covid denial, which is why it is so hard to deal with. To argue with it is to challenge not a set of beliefs but the emotional core of someone’s identity. You may well dismiss these people, but they are not going to disappear. Covidiocy is now at the heart of everyday life. We cannot distance ourselves from it, however much we want to.
Originally published: 2020-09-07 11:28:18