A friend of mine recently told me to “grow some” in response to another of my futile attempts to talk him down from his conspiracy theory about the Covid-19 pandemic: that it is all a government plan to increase surveillance and social control and make Big Pharma rich. While I agree it is likely that government will always jump on any such opportunity and always has, and Big Pharma will undoubtedly make a lot of money (big online business already has), it is not the primary explanation for 188 countries reporting the same virus, which would imply millions of health workers of every rank pretending to be working 18 hour days, staying in their hospitals for months, and all those patients pretending to be ill.
A conspiracy of the media to sensationalise and scaremonger rather than speak carefully and with balance I would agree is happening, but it is no more than a zeitgeist rather than an organised conspiracy, and it has been going on for decades, more or less since the rise of Rupert Murdoch and his one great insight: we love to be scared (e.g. horror movies and fiction).
Media has been moving from emotionless factual reportage to sensationalised entertainment over the last forty or fifty years. There was a time when you could buy a single newspaper and expect to hear the whole story. Choice came down to editorial style, and of course, editorial position, but that in itself was very much confined to the Editorial pages, and were seen as precisely that, a reflection on the news reported elsewhere in the paper. Nowadays the whole paper is editorialised, it’s very demoralising.
My friend was hoping that I would grow some testicles, for those who missed the meaning of “Grow some”. At the time I said something dismissive about his attempt at wit (I had texted “Grow up” when he mocked the dying) and we left it there, but on reflection I have thought a couple of things. The first is that it is interesting that he should see the argument about how to deal with the virus as a test of my and presumably his masculinity (admittedly, this is a man with a goatee beard, so one can understand his uncertainty), a reference to what we used to call “brass balls”, a kind of “I will stand my ground” quality, a display of toughness and resilience, much like the chaps at The Alamo.
Secondly, it’s not that I think my friend is likely to die, or even catch the virus for that matter, but it is a risk we all run and are likely to run most of the rest of our days, like road accidents and air crashes and falling down stairs with a tray. As I see it, masks are the equivalent of seatbelts (which were heavily resisted in the beginning, and to this day a considerable number of road fatalities are people not wearing them), and I would expect masks to become as common here as they are in China and Japan, for example. As to social distancing, one can see the change already taking hold in the way people meet casually in the street.1 Most people are already wearing masks in places with a roof overhead, though for now I suspect they’re hoping it won’t be forever. They’re only waiting for the miracle vaccine of which we hear so much.
But we are living in the age of rapid distribution. It is the cornerstone of some of the greatest social changes that modern transport has brought about across the world in the last hundred years, the huge reduction in the numbers of people living without sufficient food, without medical resources, without some knowledge of the world beyond their immediate society, which is itself the simultaneous social miracle and political conundrum of our times.
Among other things, it gets diseases around the world like wild fire. How often do you take a trip by air and come home with a sniffle, maybe a cold or even flu that you probably caught at the airport or on the plane? We shrug it off because it is not a big deal, and a small if inconvenient price to pay for the glory of modern travel opportunities. Fortunately, most of the time there aren’t any novel viruses looking for places to stay, but there have been five or six epidemics in the last twenty years, some of which, Bird Flu and SARS for instance, made some headway before coming under control. Covid-19 was a comparative biggy, and it is hard to say what was the difference that caused it to spread as it did and changed the way the world reacted, though I think we have to accept that a lot has to be laid at the door of the Chinese culture of hierarchical fear, such that the local officials at the heart of the outbreak in Wuhan didn’t dare tell any senior authority, no one outside the hospitals in Wuhan in fact, and off it went.
It also doesn’t help that, for the very good reason that they live in warm to hot climates and that therefore things go off very quickly in the heat, much of the world prefer to buy their meat live and slaughter it only immediately before cooking. It’s only my opinion, but I’ve noticed that all the rules of diet in kosher and halal cuisine make very good sense when you remember that the origins of those rules were laid down in the desert where those hot conditions reigned, and pigs were fed on the proceeds of the latrines. Mohammed obviously had a keen eye for sanitary behaviours. Halal slaughter is merely the fastest way to kill available at the time of writing the Q’ran. The tragedy for the victims of halal butchery, which can take up to two minutes to render the victim unconscious as they bleed to death, is that Mohammed didn’t have modern humane stun guns.2 to recommend and Muslims are very slavish about the instructions given in the Q’ran, as we know, though some do use methods to stun the animal before severing the carotid artery, the jugular, the windpipe and the oesophagus in one swift cut with a fine blade, as instructed.
Assuming there is no change in any of that in the near future, I think we’ll find ourselves confronting these pandemics fairly often, and will get used to the mechanisms of controlling it. What we cannot continue with, and on this my friend and I agree, is that it be dealt with by law and surveillance. There are freedoms which are fundamental to the European political consciousness, and I include America and Australia as Europe’s outliers. In fact such freedoms for the citizens and such power as the citizens have over their governments must not be surrendered, and in case anyone wonders why, look to the nations where control and surveillance are widespread, under the various forms of autocracy that exist currently in the world. To an extent all government is autocratic, inasmuch as we don’t get to influence their decisions, only, in the world’s democracies, the regular choice of whom to hand power to. A majority government in those parliaments is effectively an elected dictatorship, and sometimes they have been known to convert their position to assume total power. It can be done very subtly, and I can see where my friend’s suspicions are founded. I recommend “The Rise And Rise of Michael Rimmer”, a Peter Cook film made in 1970 and even more terrifyingly relevant today with the TV personality President in America and the bumbling humorist in the UK, and autocrats sprouting up all over the planet.
I’ve been talking to some people in China about Xinjiang, and at the same time I’m reading a novel by a Buddhist/humanist friend about life in Tibet in the 1950s3, shortly after the initial invasion and import of Han Chinese settlers to the mountain nation. Of course, settling was precisely the way in which the Europeans took over the Americas and Australasia, and it is how the French took over in England back in 1066, and at least the Chinese are trying in Tibet and Xinjiang to bring the people into their society, rather than the more genocidal approach of the Europeans settling in the colonies in the 19th century. I follow a blog site about Africa as well, and what is noted there is that the Chinese are far less inclined to speak to Africans as if they are all basically dim. They treat people as their equals, which is very seductive. What the Chinese really think of the rest of us is, of course, not something I know, but they used to call us “red barbarians”, if that is any kind of clue.
The question is, when do you stop listening to someone telling you what to do? The answer, it seems, is, when you know perfectly well what to do and do not need their advice. This applies whether you do in fact know enough or not, which leaves one open to all sorts of contradictory interpretations of events. We live with it every day if we let the online world get into our lives. It’s a bit like the warnings against smoking. There must now be very few smokers who have not heard of the dangers and yet they still smoke, and incidentally, it was the smoking ban in pubs and public spaces that everyone swore they’d never obey, and then everyone did. In the end, we are not fools (most of us anyway), and we don’t go out of our way to harm ourselves without having a calculated reason to do so: “I like hanging onto the side of a mountain six hundred feet above more rocks, so I’ll go climbing.”
The problem with masks is that it is, for now at least, mostly recommended for preventing oneself spreading the virus inadvertently in the incubation period. It does nothing to help the wearer (this is not necessarily true, there are differing opinions I won’t rehearse here). The social distancing advice is equally good or anyway equally indifferent for all participants in a gathering. The issue for now comes down to some extent as to how far are we willing to err on the side of caution. I don’t think this is a matter of macho-ness, but my own attitudes could well be to do with getting older. Some symptoms observed concerning this process include an increase of being prone to bouts of vertigo, and certainly, on a purely practical level, it is probable that my younger friend is in better health and virility in that particular area than I am. I on the other hand, am much more thoughtful ;). One thing I know is true, old age makes you cautious, for oneself and for one’s loved ones. My wife recently had open heart surgery, I won’t be taking risks while she is still in recuperation.
I also do not subscribe to conspiracy theories as a matter of (qualified) principle. There have been conspiracies in history, but rarely. They are extremely difficult to contain and control. More often there have simply been contingency plans drawn up that came to be used, and then it looks like it was the plan all along i.e. a conspiracy. The original plan for the attack on Pearl Harbour was drawn up by the Japanese High Command in 1897 or thereabouts, along with hundreds of other possible war scenarios. I expect modern armies are the same. It is not a conspiracy unless it is a secret and someone is getting deceived and probably harmed.
Just to round this off, and without prejudice, as the lawyers say, I read an interesting analysis of what drives conspiracy theory believers, one suggestion being that in their terror of things being out of control, they would rather think things are under control, even if the controller is an evil lizard man sucking the blood of babies or a greedy plutocratic government.
Meanwhile, my wife and I continue to live and generally isolate ourselves at home, where we work, eat, entertain ourselves and our cat and dog, and sleep, surrounded by fields and silence, with the Atlantic to the front and the Macgillicuddy Reeks at our backs.
1 Did you hear the gag about the Swedish? They’ve given up on the 2 meter distancing, and gone back to the usual 5 meters.
2 “Vets say unstunned cattle take about 20 seconds (but up to 2 minutes) to lose consciousness while they bleed to death], sheep six or seven seconds (but up to 20) and poultry seven or eight seconds, but all these times can be far longer.” James Meikle The Guardian 2014. Stunning is instantaneous, and humane if death is immediately brought on afterwards, without the animal regaining consciousness.
3 “Windhorse Warrior” by R. C. Friedericks – Nyogi Books India – ISBN: 978-93-86906-51-9