Covid-19 and the Age of Hysteria

Whilst facing the biggest national struggle for a generation, it would be wise not to lose our minds

It now seems an almost distant memory when Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, appeared on our T.V screens in late March and informed the public that the government was to take far stricter measures following the Europe-wide spread of coronavirus. Nearly two months on, the restrictions are set to continue perhaps into June and many are feeling the heat. A deadly virus, economic hardships, negligence of non-Covid sufferers and crazy conspiracy theories all bite at our heels. So, at a time of national emergency, why have some of us gone utterly insane?

The first to fall foul of Covid hysteria were the police. Thankfully, when I have ventured outside for my daily walk, I have yet to have been accosted by a self-righteous officer; amped up with his new powers and ready to tell off anyone who dares to sit down mid-exercise. In fact, great credit should be given to my local police officers in the Stratford-Upon-Avon region who have remained relatively invisible over the past few weeks and have trusted the public to go about their affairs in good faith. And that they have; everyone I have come across has obeyed social distancing and still will greet you with a smile when you pass them down the street. After a small flurry of hoarding of essential products, faith has been resumed in local suppliers, and the town, though many are suffering greatly, seems to be dealing with the lockdown in a mature manner with great spirit. This cannot be said to be the case across the U.K.

Perhaps it’s a little unfair to be overly critical our police forces. After all, we do live in unprecedented times and the government’s Coronavirus Bill does explicitly give officers the right to fine and/or arrest those who take part in public gatherings or ignore travel restrictions. The very purpose of the police in our country is to enforce laws which the government has enacted. It has to be said, however, that a shred of common sense wouldn’t go amiss.

Derbyshire Police perfectly exhibited the kind of Orwellian behaviour that could lead to rifts of public confidence towards our law enforcers for years to come. In a video posted on Twitter in late March, the Derbyshire Constabulary Drone Unit (yes, that really exists) filmed the Curber Edge Walk in the Peak District in an obvious attempt to find people flouting the newly passed legislation[1]. Derbyshire Police must have felt somewhat vindicated to find a number of vehicles in the car park and approximately ten people on the walk. All in an area spanning across more than 1,000km2. Let’s be honest, it was a video of the police spying on members of the general public — none of whom were causing any harm. The addition of patronising annotations explaining the walker’s legal disregard doesn’t change that. All of this at the tax payer’s expense. Well done, coppers.

Observing the experience of the writer and columnist Peter Hitchens in recent weeks has been a really interesting demonstration of how many in the media have completely succumbed to Covid hysteria. Every source of mainstream media I can think of has implacably accepted the lockdown and given limited, if in fact no, airtime to those who dissent from the consensus. The Good Morning Britain debate in which Hitchens, himself a dissident, was invited onto exemplified the industry’s shortcomings[2]. Rather than attempting to find out as many facts as possible, Piers Morgan was more interested in trying to prove his intellectual dominance over Hitchens. Backed up by Gabriel Scally, an expert in the field of public health who conveniently shared Morgan’s opinions, the debate became one-sided with no expert to back up Hitchens. A plethora of economists and health experts, including Dr Sucharit Bhakdi (professor Emeritus of Medical Microbiology at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz), whom Hitchens cited in his blog[3], could have been invited on to give the debate a more authentic balance.

Whether or not the lockdown and its continuation are the right steps for the government to be making is not important to my argument. The point is that broadcasters will set up guests and portray them as radicals for questioning the prevailing dogma. Of course, this backfired on Morgan in a Twitter spat with Conservative MP, Nadine Dorries, who, like Morgan had previously done with Hitchens, displayed Covid hysteria to the point of not being receptacle to other views. Dorries proclaimed her dismay at pesky journalists for questioning the government on when a lockdown exit strategy will come into place before Morgan, quite rightly, called her out for wishing to subdue media scrutiny. Indeed, at a time like this, more scrutiny than ever is required from our broadcasters who should be willing to at least listen fairly and openly to all sides of the discussion before subjecting to criticism. Morgan failed to do this in the Hitchens debate but he won’t be the last journalist to lose sight of sense by the time this lockdown subsides.

Then there comes the wackier types of hysteria which has infected the U.K. Over the previous months we have seen a number of unconvincing conspiracy theories grace social media. One in particular which caught the eye involved Boris Johnson; the accusation that the Prime Minister had in fact not contracted the coronavirus. While this bizarre fantasy only caught on in the Boris-bashing left, it’s laughable, and warrants a mention just for that alone.

Twitter’s self-styled man of truth and decency, ‘Mr Ethical’, has fallen to Covid hysteria perhaps more than most. The former anti-corruption campaigner, otherwise known as Nicholas Wilson, felt the need to inform his 42,000 followers with the completely unsubstantiated claims that Boris Johnson was only “allegedly” infected. A scientifically foolproof survey Wilson put up asked if his followers believed Johnson had been infected with coronavirus and yielded an 86% majority for ‘no’. Why exactly the Prime Minister would go to the extent of a gigantic cover-up in order to be free of media scrutiny, despite heading numerous daily coronavirus updates/ press briefings before his incapacitation, shall forever remain a mystery. Of course, ‘Mr Crackpot Conspiracy Theorist’ doesn’t have the same ring as ‘Mr Ethical’.

Unfortunately, not all the conspiracy theories were confined to the depths of social media. In early April we saw the first bout of 5G mast burning in the Midlands and the North based on the (once again) unsubstantiated claims that the masts were responsible for the rapid spread of the coronavirus. In a time of unprecedented panic, some were quick to look for something to blame. What wasn’t expected, of course, was that innocent telecommunication masts would face the brunt. The potential damage that communication outages could do to emergency services, as well as ordinary people trying to make contact with friends and loved ones, is unimaginable.

Social media giants, YouTube, decided to stamp out these insane theories partly by targeting renowned conspiracy theorist, and all round nutter, David Icke, who had expressed his opinions on the masts and their link to coronavirus around the time of the initial burnings. Of course, censoring the outrageous views of Icke didn’t work. The paranoid mast burners were back in mid-May, this time targeting the Bradford area. Silicon Valley’s tech elite have been hampering freedom of expression for a long time now so this was nothing new, nor was it unexpected. If they were in fact serious about the issue at hand, then they may well have been better off promoting videos which proves the nonsense that the likes of Icke and others spew to be false. Deleting content hasn’t got YouTube anywhere other than showing off how virtuous and pure their platform is.

There have been countless other acts of hysteria in the past few months; from politicians and journalists denouncing anyone who dare call it the ‘Chinese virus’ as a racist (though geography may tell them otherwise) to Madonna describing the virus as “the great equaliser”. She went on to describe the ‘beauty’ of how this deadly disease will make us all the same while sat in a petal-filled bathtub in her multi-million-pound property[4]. The list is seemingly endless, and laced with the kind of craziness that will no doubt embarrass us when future generations try to make sense of it all. Let’s hope they learn from our misjudgements.

Of course, the really sad thing about all of this brainlessness and absurdity is that it completely undermines the serious efforts that have been put in to combat coronavirus. Take, for instance, the workers at Pilgrim Wood care home in Surrey who have vowed to spend the next month living in tents on-site in the garden. This selfless act is aimed to help reduce their contact with the outside world to give residents the best possible chance of survival[5]. Elsewhere, U.K companies have taken it upon themselves to help produce personal protective equipment to give frontline NHS staff, like the residents of Pilgrim Wood, the best fighting chance possible. Business website The Manufacturer compiled a list of all 122 British companies that had showed great innovation to transform their production line to help out their country in its time of need[6].

If we also consider the everyday acts of decency from the British public, big and small — from those who have checked in on elderly neighbours to those who have simply followed the guidelines — then we have cause for some degree of pride. It is this pride and sense of cando-ism that the West must abide by when facing the next great international challenge: the impending recession which, by many accounts, will be a greater catastrophe than the virus itself[7].

Should such a disaster unfurl, and we are plunged into the biggest economic collapse since the beginning of the 20th century, then we must learn from our mistakes and our irrational behaviours. We must learn to listen to as many experts as possible for, just as there is no definitive version of ‘the science’, there is no singular form of economics that will alleviate us of our brewing troubles. We must ensure that while combatting these challenges we don’t erode our civil liberties. We must understand that there will always be ridiculous conspiracy theories in times of panic, and effectively batting them away way will require exposing these beliefs to other, more rational, views. Ruling crazed, unreasonable opinions illegal or hailing them too sinister for public consumption will ensure we lose more than we gain.

Writer Douglas Murray might have hit the nail on the head when discussing the virus, our mistakes and all of the subsequent agonies we will no doubt inherit: “It was that uncanny feeling of ‘how on earth could something like this happen?’ Followed by ‘no, this is the sort of thing that happens. This is history. This is how history feels’”[8]. Indeed, Covid and the lockdown does have a momentous ring to it and we must learn from the past to preserve the kind of future we want. This future shall only be obtainable if we break ourselves away from the age of hysteria.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fHNxDzLsPeg

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4xsk-SMA_8&t=1s

[3] https://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2020/03/an-expert-says-the-current-response-to-the-coronavirus-is-grotesque-absurd-and-very-dangerous.html

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SoQQMfURcKs

[5] https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/care-home-workers-sleeping-tents-22015409

[6] https://www.themanufacturer.com/articles/every-uk-manufacturers-helping-to-produce-ppe-and-equipment-for-nhs-workers/

[7] https://www.ft.com/content/33c03dc6-ceab-40e5-b61f-66829c5b9b2c

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EvS9cYuW5KA

MA Journalism Student | Free Speech and Democracy | Tottenham North Stand Upper |