By Keith Johnson
“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.”– Harry G. Frankfurt
On 18 May 2020, the Guardian published a piece titled ‘lockdown sceptics want a culture war, with experts as the enemy.’1 Written by Peter Geoghegan and Mary Fitzgerald, in the main it consisted of a densely packed set of ad hominem attacks upon a handful of individuals most strongly associated with lockdown skepticism. Such people, we were informed, were ‘distorting reality’ and ‘warping public debate.’ Claiming concern about a culture war, they were keen to point out ‘the echoes of Brexit’, which they claimed were not difficult to spot. Anyone even questioning severe lockdowns were rejecting ‘expert opinion’ with an arrogance that stemmed from being ‘products of our distorted media system.’
There was so much to unpack there it is difficult to know where to begin. Its most overarching feature was the haughty moral tone adopted, which has characterized the response of what will be referred to from here on, admittedly rather clumsily, as ‘the liberal-left.’ It was this dismissive tone which struck me most forcefully at a time when I was trying to figure out what I thought about all this Covid business. The outright refusal to engage honestly with any substantive arguments, the assumption that ‘expert opinion’ was monolithic on what was, after all, a novel virus, and of course wholly supportive of their position, coupled with the willingness to hurl accusations like scatter grenades without once justifying the merits and validity of its own stance. In this sense, I suppose that the echoes of Brexit were not hard to detect, although not quite in the way they meant.
It did, at least, convince me of one thing: I could no longer stomach reading the Guardian. What follows will be an attempt to understand the response of the vast majority of the left to this virus and to get to grips with my own disorientation as someone who, from the age of about 14, has considered themselves as being very much a part of that camp. Whilst I’m well accustomed to the bullshit of the right on many issues, being repulsed by the patent hypocrisy and willfully faulty reasoning of the people I was used to agreeing with on most things came as a profound, disorientating shock.
One of the most depressing things about the response to Covid-19 has been the full gamut of classically poor arguments and logical fallacies which have been deployed in what has passed for engagement on such a vital issue. To be sure, this has to an extent occurred on both sides as confirmation bias has kicked in and positions have become entrenched. As we have all become amateur virologists, it has been important to keep in mind that there are many things about the epidemiology of any novel virus which are not fully understood by anyone, despite the increasingly unconvincing insistence that ‘the’ science was guiding the official response. The use of the definite article here was the first deliberate sleight of hand, suggesting a shared understanding amongst all right-thinking people. And yet this has never been the case, particularly as a growing amount of data has presented an increasingly strong case that the more alarmist warnings, embraced by most on the left with a truly disturbing zeal, look less convincing than they were originally assumed to be.
The certainty that ‘lockdowns’, which morphed from a temporary measure to buy time to an imposed new normal, significantly reduce infection has also taken some blows. The first of these came in early May 2020, when it was revealed that by far the largest number of new Covid-19 hospitalizations in New York state were from people who had been staying indoors as instructed, where almost 84% of hospitalized cases were occurring amongst people who had not been commuting to work or meeting in large groups outside.2 Then, later in the year a Lancet study concluded that border closures, full-on lockdowns and manic testing were not associated with significantly lower levels of mortality.3
When Geoghegan and Fitzgerald in that Guardian article noted that “Even as the coronavirus death toll has skyrocketed, the serried ranks of Britain’s lockdown sceptics has swelled”, it presumably did not occur to them, ensconced in the doubt-insulated certainty of their own obvious, unassailable and virtuous correctness, to wonder if that might be in any way connected to an honest attempt to assess evidence and evaluate risk. The fact that Sweden’s less strident approach to tackling the virus, which many of the left appeared to hold an almost pathological desire to see fail, had not conformed to the dire predictive modelling from Imperial College and others which had prompted the UK response, also suggests that such questions were perhaps not as clear cut as the lockdown left presented them.
Rather than considering the contested nature of ‘the science’ and different interpretations of evidence as legitimate, mainstream news outlets, along with liberal-left commentators on platforms such as Twitter, sought to pathologize dissent. In April, Nicole Hemmer for CNN4 responded to the first sizeable anti-lockdown protest in Michigan by framing it as a sort of cognitive dissonance, representing “a deep craving for a return to our old lives” and a “denial” that it just wasn’t possible. Whilst there may have been some truth to this, it’s also possible that many of the protesters – tarred indiscriminately with the brush of being ‘far right’ – may have had legitimate concerns about loss of livelihoods, civil liberties, and doubts about the proportionality of the response. And yet while CNN and others were keen to offer such psychological insights into the motives of those skeptical of lockdown policies, the reasons behind why others were welcoming them with such a disturbing devotion was left largely unexamined. If some were craving a return to ‘normality’, or at least an environment where risks could be weighed and they could perhaps continue to make a living, why were others seemingly so eager to embrace an apocalyptic narrative?
Let’s begin with our ‘distorted media system’, which, you’ll recall, our enlightened rationalists Geoghegan and Fitzgerald rather bizarrely and without explanation blamed at least in part for skepticism. The media has indeed played a significant role in these events. As the industry has become more competitive, it has also become increasingly geared towards soundbites and clickbait, a form of showbusiness where any connection with reality is obscured amongst the relentless barrage of images designed, above all, to prompt an emotional reaction. And the emotional reaction most productive for the industry, certainly the easiest to monetize, is of course fear and hence there is a constant need to reinforce and reproduce it. Health scares have for some time now been a key part of that, and a constantly recurring source of media panic storms. Just how the distorting logic of this operates was demonstrated in the late 1990s, when the media seized onto doubts raised over the MMR vaccine, where alarmist stories were systematically sought out and foregrounded while anything more nuanced, measured or reassuring was deliberately ignored.
This is the context in which Covid-19 emerged. Only this time those tendencies were far more pronounced than with previous health panics such as MMR, Mad Cow Disease and Flesh-eating bugs, as the mainstream media was now not only competing amongst itself but with a highly excitable plethora of social media outlets, with the twitterization of public discourse ensuring that panic and sensationalism could travel round the world and back whilst nuance and perspective was still getting its boots on. The fact that over the years journalists have as a rule become less and less effective at doing their job must to a large extent account for the fact that by the summer of 2020 a large number of people in Britain sincerely believed that 7% of the UK population had died of Covid-19,5 when the real figure stood at a hundred times lower, with the average age of those dying being eighty years old.
While news outlets grimly reported daily death tolls at the height of the crisis, often accompanied by scary music and images of doctors huddled around ICU beds, later on when the first day arrived with no reported deaths it warranted barely a mention and certainly no celebration. Instead, the same media effortlessly switched their concern to supposed spikes in ‘cases.’ Relying on mainstream media coverage, one could be forgiven for being unaware that in July there were 38,000 deaths in England, with COVID-19 being eighth in the top ten causes of death in England, and not even bothering the top ten in Wales.
But this is not simply a case of media manipulation. Media is not consumed in a vacuum, but rather through the prism of our pre-existing beliefs, prejudices and social conditions. There was an unmistakable, palpable excitement to be found in some sections of the left that here, at long last, was a crisis that might herald the sort of social transformation long hoped for but always out of reach. Examples of this are not hard to find. Aaron Bastani, co-founder of millennial left Novara Media and advocate of a peculiar form of reformist technologized utopia, looked forward with barely disguised glee in a number of articles in summer 2020 to the imminent destruction of the retail sector in the UK and the destruction of “some of the most venerable names in British commerce.”6 In their place, Bastani offered as a model of the future a company called PureGym, which had the advantage of “low staffing levels…social distancing measures” and “real-time updates about when is the ideal time to visit their local gym.” Ah, what a brave new world we dare to imagine! Covid-19 was almost a godsend, as it offered the opportunity to “rapidly decarbonise our economies, build much-needed public infrastructure and re-wild our natural environments.”
Another even cruder example of this can be gleaned from a letter penned to an obscure British left-wing newspaper7 in May. According to the writer, Boris Johnson’s lockdown had “reclaimed humanity from the inhuman, consumerist agenda” of capitalism. “However imperfect”, it went on, presumably alluding to the view that it wasn’t nearly as draconian as the writer would like, “what we are witnessing is the creeping of human need being put above bourgeois profit.” Even more bizarrely, it claimed that it represented “a loosening of the control that the bourgeoisie have over the masses.”
Whilst on one level this can be viewed as patently unhinged, it does express an underlying truth about why on the whole the left have loved the lockdowns and have accepted the media narrative uncritically. In an atmosphere previously perceived as being one of defeat and retreat, with the failure to get Corbyn elected or Sanders even on the ballot paper and Brexit framed as a victory over liberal values in the famed culture wars, now suddenly here was an interruption to that unbearable reality. The Covid lockdowns appeared to be disruptive to the normal functioning of capitalism in a way the left and the labour movement could no longer be through their own organization and effort. To paraphrase Marx, the emancipation of the working class was now the act of the Covid-19 lockdown.
Of course, here was also an opportunity to demonstrate how much we care, in an environment in which public displays of caring carry such social weight, in a performative display of opposition to the alienating consumerism and atomization of neoliberal rationality. The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy captured something of this when he spoke of the ‘psychotic delirium’ induced by the virus, and the ‘dark joy’ with which it was embraced by some as something that did, at last, place us at the center of an historical reality in contradiction to the inauthenticity of much of modern existence.8
In other words, informing and fueling the zeal was the psycho-political opportunities the lockdowns offered, rather than any adherence to ‘the science.’ The fact that the science argument was not even taken seriously by such zealots became increasingly clear as the 2020 wore on. At the level of the comical, why else would Neil Fergusson, for example, turn out to be not only a failed statistician but also a serial lockdown dodger? But in terms of deferring to some supposedly unanswerable scientific authority, the biggest exposure came in May, when George Floyd was killed by police whilst being arrested in Minneapolis and protests exploded at the shocking brutality of his death. One might have thought that this would present as something of a conundrum for many of those on the liberal-left, as after all they had just been continuously accusing anti-lockdown protesters of recklessly defying ‘the science’ and risking the lives of thousands by stepping outside their homes. George Galloway had gone so far as to label such people ‘mass murderers’ for organizing even modest public gatherings. Another Twitter account shared a photograph of a few hundred people in Los Angeles protesting the lockdown accompanied by the comment “That second spike is going to be horrendous.” Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez had a pinned tweet on her feed urging people, especially the young, to avoid at all costs crowded places. Now suddenly, a double standard of industrial strength proportions was on display. What was grimly fascinating was that many prominent figures on the left did not stop making such pronouncements, but now combined them with calls for people to also join mass gatherings that they approved of, arguing that the issue was more important than following the imposed restrictions. For once in all of this, like stopped clocks, they were right. Quite what gave them the arbitrary right, however, to decide which issues and which forms of human contact are important and which not was not made clear.
Working for the clampdown
The wider issue of civil liberties and the right to protest, long believed to be a cause the left championed, has been a litmus test in all of this, fascinating and depressing in equal measure to witness. Whilst it wasn’t so long ago that thousands of people, largely on the left, were protesting at Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend parliament for a few days in order to assist the passage of Brexit, passed in a popular vote many of them openly wanted to overturn, the silence over the far more worrying suspension of civil liberties and democratic norms we have witnessed with Covid as its pretext has been, in contrast, deafening.
Until very recently, it has been virtually impossible to find any prominent figure or forum on the left, with perhaps the honorable exception of John Pilger, that has shown the remotest concern over the suspension of jury trials, massively increased powers for the police, the banning of nearly all forms of collective protest, and the zeal with which giant tech corporations such as Facebook and YouTube have taken it upon themselves to arbitrarily decide which views on the Covid outbreak and the response to it we are permitted to see, more recently morphing into which political views we are allowed to express in general. In fact, when Boris Johnson announced his lockdown (a term, let’s not forget, until now associated with a method of control used in prisons), the left-wing Guardian writer and media luvvie Owen Jones declared “Never thought I’d be relieved to be placed under house arrest along with millions of people under a police state by a right wing Tory government”9
Whilst Jones revelled in his house arrest, safe of course in the knowledge that he would unlikely to be foregoing any paychecks, the erosion of basic freedoms has gathered pace. At the end of August, Piers Corbyn was fined ten thousand pounds for organizing an anti-lockdown protest in central London under a hastily introduced law which banned the gathering of more than 30 people. A few days later, he was again arrested after speaking in Sheffield, when the 73-year-old was bundled into a police van by about five officers. Protests can now only be held at the whim of the state and a Tory government the left were previously decrying as authoritarian to the point of being semi-fascist. We should not forget, in light of more recent events, that no prominent voice on the left went out of their way to offer even a remote condemnation of this display of aggressive state power.
In the same month, the pre-emptive arrest of a woman in Australia, where the academic and former UN Assistant Secretary General, Ramesh Thakur has spoken10 in despair at “the extent to which dominant majorities of peoples in countries with universal literacy can be successfully terrified into surrendering their civil liberties and individual freedoms” for promoting an anti-lockdown protest online starkly illustrated the extent of this increase in state power and harassment. Footage emerged showing officers handcuffing the pregnant woman in her home in Victoria in front of her partner and children. As a spokesperson for Human Rights Watch said, “Arresting people pre-emptively for the act of organising peaceful protests or for social media posts is something that happens all too often under authoritarian regimes.”11 However, this footage was not shared by any prominent figures on the liberal-left, who are otherwise not slow in highlighting acts of unwarranted police aggression.
In January 2021, the veteran left-wing comedian Mark Steel used his column in the Independent to poke fun at the ‘conspiracy theorists’ who question the unchallengeable wisdom of lockdowns. In it, he sneeringly dismissed anyone who had raised concerns about increased police powers as complaining about nothing with the following hilarious observation: “Desmond Swayne MP has said Britain has become a “police state”, which is a society run along the lines of the military dictatorship in Chile. It’s true – the scariest accounts from that time are the harrowing stories of students walking through the dusk in the streets of Santiago, fearfully quickening their pace as they sensed the glare of the police upon them, before hearing a chilling voice asking them to wear a mask before going into Morrisons.”12
In September 2020, when the police in Britain arbitrarily cancelled a protest by LGBT activists against a visit by representatives of the Polish government, threatening hefty fines under the same legislation they used against Corbyn, there were finally signs that the penny might be dropping even for the most thick-skulled lockdown zealots of the left.13 In the same month, the rights group Liberty finally called on the UK government to cease its attack on civil liberties. Of course, they haven’t. In March of this year, we have seen the police shut down a nurses’ protest at their derisory pay offer, imposing a fine of ten thousand pounds on the organizer, and even more infamously the police assault on the mainly women protesters on Clapham Common, gathered in remembrance of Sarah Everard and in protest against harassment and violence against women generally. Suddenly, as if awoken from a dream, many on the left were decrying the state repression that they had previously at best been silent about and in many, many cases encouraged. Conveniently, they were struck not only by outrage but by a collective amnesia, with no recollection at all of the ways in which they had enthusiastically contributed to the atmosphere in which the police could justify their brutality in such ways.
A comprehensive view of health
The mantra on the left has been that lockdowns were about putting health and social solidarity above the pursuit of profit. Implicit within this simplistic formulation, of course, being the accusation that if you are a skeptic, you are obviously a heartless apologist for corporate greed. Such infantile reductionism ignores the fact that any public policy seeking to foreground what is in the best interests for most people needs to be based on a comprehensive understanding of health, employing rationality and perspective in its assessment of risk. Even if one accepts the dubious case that quarantining healthy people was an effective prophylactic measure for a respiratory virus, a position never before seriously proposed in any pandemic planning protocol, lockdowns themselves were only viable even on a short-term basis for those with assured incomes or the advantage of a social safety net, living conditions that possessed the space required for social distancing, and a health service which did not only function for the wealthy. Commenting on the lockdown imposed in India, one of its victims wearily asked how social distancing was feasible “for large extended families who crowd into narrow single rooms in slums and working-class tenements?”14 Many on the left appeared to care little for the “profound and pervasive impact” lockdowns would have on the poor or global mental health15, the explosion in domestic violence or the way the heavy hand of Covid-19 restrictions were disproportionately aimed at and affecting low-income communities, the latter graphically illustrated when in July 3,000 public housing residents in Australia were placed under a police-guarded lockdown following a small outbreak in some tower blocks.16
The effect of the lockdowns on children should have also concerned anyone genuinely concerned with health and social justice. Not only at the most severe end with those pushed down into extreme poverty or even death,17 but even in countries like Britain where the insidious effect of locking children out of school and barring them from contact with their friends needed to be carefully considered. A survey in the medical journal The Lancet in April,18 assessing findings from 16 studies from a range of countries which had implemented long-term school closures not only found ‘limited benefit’ in terms of slowing the spread, but serious concerns raised about what was in the best interests of children. Not only did long-term closures place excessive childcare demands on parents but there was clear evidence amongst the most vulnerable children of a worsening of a range of social problems including neglect, sexual abuse, and adolescent pregnancy. Many children from low-income families were also being denied access to various forms of social assistance provided in schools, such as free lunches and health care. There was ample evidence that school closures were widening already dire levels of inequality. In May even the fanatically pro-lockdown Guardian reported on survey data by the Institute of Fiscal Studies which found that children from wealthier families were spending around 30% more time per day on educational activities when compared with children from the poorest fifth of households, a gap that widened even further when it came to primary children. In June, The Times reported that 1,600 paediatricians had warned Johnson in an open letter that he risked damaging the life chances of a generation by keeping schools closed.
Here was opinion based upon scientific research and evaluation. And yet the main teachers’ union in the UK was instructing its members not to ‘engage’ with the planning process for the reopening of schools, citing safety fears. In a live broadcast on 16 May, Novara Media discussed the re-opening of schools with James McCash, a primary school teacher, Labour councilor and an activist in the National Education Union, in which McCash laid out his opposition to Johnson’s plans, claiming that it was underpinned, you guessed it, by ‘the science’ and had the backing of the British Medical Association.
However, by the time of this broadcast, although admittedly the reasons were not clearly understood, there were consistent findings that although young children could get Covid-19, rarely did it result in anything other than mild symptoms. Rates of infection amongst this age group also appeared to be low. More pertinently, there was clear evidence emerging that although children could be super-spreaders of colds and flu, clusters examined in various locations had found fewer than 10% of children to be the primary spreader. Moreover, the experience of European countries such as Denmark and Norway, which had reopened schools had been largely positive. Regarding the credence given to his position by the BMA,19 it is worth noting that this had already been criticized by several others in relevant scientific fields. Saul Faust, a professor of pediatric immunology and infectious diseases at Southampton University, for example, had criticized the BMA for “making errors in its representation of scientific studies from other countries” and not presenting a “balanced representation of their members’ views.” Faust also made the point that a controlled reopening would pose a low risk to children’s health.
The enthusiasm with which most of the left have willfully suspended critical faculties and tossed rational assessment under the Covid bus for their own political purposes has been alarming. On March 15 2021, two days after the police dragged women away in handcuffs at Clapham Common, Mark Steel had forgotten that anyone who was concerned about massively increased police powers under Covid was a conspiracy theorists and was tweeting his outrage at the justifications offered by the police, writing “I guess by Tuesday we’ll hear a) There is evidence some of the women had nuclear weapons b) The police were advised of new science that shows Coronavirus is spread by candles c) some of the women weren’t actual women but agitating Duchesses from outside the area.”20 The sad truth is that if Neil Fergusson and his fellow soothsayers at Imperial College announced that Coronavirus was indeed spread by candles, it would not be long before Mark Steel and many others like him would be denouncing anyone who questioned it as a conspiracy theorist.
Whilst superficially based on an honorable tradition of advocating necessary health and safety measures for working people, the reality is that ‘don’t do anything until everything is a hundred percent risk free’ is not only an irrational, cynical, opportunistic, and unsustainable position, but a politically dangerous one in that has provided cover for an even more outrageous concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few that even existed before. When Met police chief Cressida Dick doubled down in the face of calls for her resignation after Clapham Common, she did so with the following statement: “Quite rightly, as far as I can see, my team felt that this is now an unlawful gathering which poses a considerable risk to people’s health.”21 Well, indeed. Didn’t the left tell us those protesting lockdowns were at best irresponsible if not mass murderers? It should be only too clear by now that if and when fascism does arrive it is less likely to be in the form of knuckle-dragging BNP thugs and more likely to be wearing a woke face. Whilst it is encouraging to finally hear the faint sound of pennies dropping among sections of the left, serious questions need to be faced regarding how a political movement supposedly concerning with democracy and working-class justice has enabled that.
 Peter Geoghegan and Mary Fitzgerald, The ‘lockdown sceptics’ want a culture war, with experts as the enemy, The Guardian, Mon 18 May, 2020. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/18/lockdown-sceptics-coronavirus-brexit
 Noah Higgins Dunn and Kevin Brueninger, Cuomo says it’s ‘shocking’ most new coronavirus hospitalizations are people who had been staying home, CNBC, May 6, 2020. Available at: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/05/06/ny-gov-cuomo-says-its-shocking-most-new-coronavirus-hospitalizations-are-people-staying-home.html
 Rabail Chaudhry, George Dranitsaris, Talha Mubashir, Justyna Bartoszko, Sheila Riazi, A country level analysis measuring the impact of government actions, country preparedness and socioeconomic factors on COVID-19 mortality and related health outcomes, Open Access, Published July 21, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eclinm.2020.100464, https://www.thelancet.com/journals/eclinm/article/PIIS2589-5370(20)30208-X/fulltext
 Nicole Hemmer, A deep craving for ‘normalcy’ goes up against the reality of Covid-19’s deadly risk. CNN, April 17, 2020. Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/04/17/opinions/return-to-normalcy-deadly-covid-19-risk-hemmer/index.html
 COVID-19 Opinion Tracker10TH – Edition 4, 15th July. Available at: https://www.kekstcnc.com/media/2793/kekstcnc_research_covid-19_opinion_tracker_wave-4.pdf
 Aaron Bastani, ‘Coronavirus Will Accelerate Automation. So Why the Calls for ‘Jobs Jobs Jobs’? Available at: https://novaramedia.com/2020/07/07/coronavirus-will-accelerate-automation-so-why-the-calls-for-jobs-jobs-jobs/
 Letter in the Weekly Worker, issue 1299, 15 May 2020. Available at: https://weeklyworker.co.uk/
 Bryan Appleyard, Bernard-Henri Lévy interview: coronavirus has sent the world into ‘psychotic delirium’, The Times, 26 July 2020. Available at: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/bernard-henri-levy-interview-coronavirus-has-sent-the-world-into-psychotic-delirium-lz5sn8gnn
 Owen Jones Tweet, March 24, 2020.
 Hugo Alconda Mon, The tyranny of coronaphobia, Open, 24 August, 2020. Available at: https://openthemagazine.com/feature/the-tyranny-of-coronaphobia/
 Covid: Australian anti-lockdown suspect’s arrest draws controversy, BBC News, Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-54007824
 Mark Steel, ‘If it’s conspiracy theories you’re into, check out this one about Leonardo da Vinci, Rasputin and… Covid’ in The Independent, 28 January. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/conspiracy-theories-covid-vaccine-johnson-b1794282.html
 Tomas Tengely-Evans, LGBT+ protests cancelled after police threats, Socialist Worker, Fri 4 Sep, 2020, Issue No. 2721. Available at: https://socialistworker.co.uk/art/50587/LGBT%2B+protests+cancelled+after+police+threats
 Harsh Mander, A pandemic in an unequal India, The Hindu, 1st April, 2020.
 Published Online April 8, 2020 https://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lanchi/PIIS2352-4642(20)30105-X.pdf
 Rhys Blakely, BMA accused of poor science over return to classes, The Times, May 17, 2020. Available at: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/bma-accused-of-poor-science-over-return-to-classes-7htwrggjr
 ‘Sarah Everard: Met Police chief will not resign over vigil scenes’, BBC News, 15 March. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-56389824