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Kathy Sheridan: Mockery is oxygen for Covid-19 deniers

Kathy Sheridan: How is civil society to challenge their abhorrent views?

All of the following occurred in the first nine days of March a year ago.

The artist Al Wei Wei describing Wuhan in lockdown: “Viewed from the outside, the city might seem like a giant aquarium. Visible fish swim silently while not a drop of water leaks out. Police have welded doors shut to monitor who enters and leaves buildings. Roads out of the city are cut with deep trenches or blocked by walls. Even little paths that lead towards farmland have been destroyed. Swim down a river? There are nets to catch you.”

Boris Johnson at a Covid-19 press conference: “I was at a hospital the other night where there were actually a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody you’ll be pleased to know and I continue to shake hands . . .”

A tweet from then US president, Donald Trump: “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life and the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that.”


We have spent a year doomscrolling, grieving, bargaining, pointing enviously at New Zealand and arguing about Sweden

Leo Varadkar, then Taoiseach, outlining scenarios at a press conference : “. . . What we’ve seen from other countries and what is available at the moment is that we could easily have 50 to 60 percent of the population contracting Covid-19 for whom the vast majority this will be a mild dose. Maybe even asymptomatic. Maybe you won’t even know you have it. But there will be a significant proportion who will require critical care and a percentage that we don’t honestly know yet – it could be could be less than 1 per cent or as much as 3 per cent or 3.4 per cent mortality we just don’t know”.

UK death toll

A year on, the UK death toll stands at six times the 20,000 projected “good outcome” of its chief scientific adviser. In the US, Covid-related deaths are 14 times the 2019 flu toll cited by Trump. In Ireland the death toll stands at a 12th of Varadkar’s most benign scenario of 1 per cent of half the population – ie 50,000 people .

We have spent a year doomscrolling, grieving, bargaining, pointing enviously at New Zealand and arguing about Sweden. Like Alice, Covid-19 made us believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

Yet for the vast majority of people, protecting lives remained the single, selfless, common endeavour. Exhaustingly, many still believe that Covid-19 is a hoax. It comes to light usually in a queue when a man is asked to wear a mask or step back and responds with a raging, misogynistic string of obscenities.

Hillary Clinton's description of half of Trump's supporters as a 'basket of deplorables' ... drew sighs of vindication from the liberal side

So in one sense, Saturday’s protestors did us a favour. Between reports and video, they gave flesh to those barely credible encounters.

Lynch public figures

The threats to lynch public figures, the “paedophile” smears, the roars of “traitors” at gardaí, the calls to a perverted “patriotism” and “freedom”, the thuggish aggression, the casual defiance of the law. The irony is that despite the ubiquitous Tricolour, nothing about it is Irish. Language and symbolism are lifted whole from the Trump/QAnon playbook.

While the saner side of social media laughed at the crackpot theories and grammar, calm heads advised that such reactions would only send the protesters deeper down into their bunkers. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s description of half of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables” – “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it” – drew sighs of vindication from the liberal side. She later admitted it was a “political gift” to Trump. When commentators mock populist, cute hoor politicians in this country, multigenerational empires rise from the victimhood of followers.

Antisemitism, racism and aggressive nationalist rhetoric are gaining ground. The numbers are growing

Clinton had tried rationality. Her approach, she said later, was to try to offer answers not to fan Americans’ post-crash resentment, but a lot of people didn’t want to hear her plans. They wanted her to share their anger and she felt – in hindsight – she should have done a better job of demonstrating that she “got it”. Maybe. But how was she to counter the mad hashtags and memes that had her operating a paedophile ring out of a Washington DC pizza parlour?

Satanic ring

How would mere policies counter the narrative that Democrats aided by Hollywood and global elites were running a massive Satanic ring devoted to the abduction and cannibalisation of children to harvest the chemical adrenochrome from their blood, a fate from which only superhero Trump could save them? This is the plot expounded by some of Saturday’s protesters, honed for local consumption by putting RTÉ presenters in the frame.

Like the rest of it, none of this is faintly original, just a remix of centuries-old racist conspiracy theories endlessly recycled, reborn and rejigged down the rabbit hole, in the adrenochrome data void.

This is the universal dilemma. Antisemitism, racism and aggressive nationalist rhetoric are gaining ground. The numbers are growing. How is civil society to challenge their abhorrent views without driving them deeper into the rabbit hole? Who are the trusted figures capable of peeling them away from the bigoted, far-right liars who exploit them?

We can no longer pretend it isn’t here.