For 16 months, the British people have been pounded with a multi-faceted Government communication campaign to imprint on our minds the dominant COVID-19 narrative and gain our compliance with the associated restrictions. The operation has been hugely successful. The majority of the general population believe that an extremely dangerous virus has been unleashed upon the world and that total carnage has only been averted by lockdowns and other unprecedented infringements of our basic human rights. Despite the current danger posed by the SARS-COV-2 virus being low, all the high-risk groups having been offered vaccination, and the accumulating evidence that lockdowns and masks do more harm than good, many continue to lead restricted, fear-laden lives. How can we enable more people to break free from their emotional shackles and return to normality? My hope is that the 3-step COVID-propaganda detox plan described in this blogpost may be of help to some people.
It will not be an easy task. Following the expert guidance of behavioural scientists and psychologists on the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), a subgroup of SAGE, the Government’s communications strategy has deployed fear inflation, shaming and scapegoating to win minds and maximise compliance. Ably assisted by all the mainstream media outlets, since the start of 2020 the Government’s communication campaign has been relentless. Every day the TV, radio, social media and newspapers – with their news reports, advertisements and public information announcements – deliver scary statistics and images. Meanwhile, experts offering alternative, more balanced narratives, are largely excluded. Unsurprisingly, this relentless Government propaganda has resulted in many people grossly overestimating the risk to life posed by the SARS-COV-2 virus. Even now, as we approach Step 4 of the ‘roadmap’ to re-open the country, the majority of the population remain anxious about ending the requirements for social distancing rules and mandatory masks.
As things stand, we all continue to lead restricted lives, imprisoned by a joy-killing combination of fear, shame, and the threat of disapproval from peers. Clearly, there are some who appear intent, or resigned, to live this ‘new normal’, dutifully following the state’s diktats regarding what you can or can’t do. However, many of us will – to various degrees – feel unhappy, or ambivalent, about these ongoing impositions and will wish to regain human connection and the quality of life they experienced prior to the pandemic. It is this latter group who may wish to consider the following plan.
STEP 1: DEVELOP AN ALTERNATIVE EXPLANATION
For those who have relied on the mainstream media and Government communications for their information about COVID-19, one story of what happened over the last 16 months – and what is likely to happen in the future – will be firmly embedded in their minds. The narrative will go something like this:
A novel virus (SARS-COV-2) emerged in early 2020 that was more deadly than any previous pathogen. This virus has been directly responsible for almost 130,000 deaths in the UK and this figure would have been much higher if it wasn’t for the unprecedented restrictions imposed, namely: lockdowns, business closures, school closures, mandatory masks, travel bans and social distancing. Despite widespread vaccination, we will need to retain some restrictions indefinitely and may need to resort to lockdowns again each winter in order to prevent more carnage.
If you believe the above story with near-100% conviction, it might be best to read no further; your existing, strongly held beliefs will result in you distorting or dismissing any contrary evidence, thereby rendering your current perspective impervious to change. But if you harbour some degree of ambivalence regarding the veracity of the official narrative, you may benefit from developing an alternative framework for understanding the events of the last 16 months. In which case, read on.
In order to explore a different story about the COVID-19 crisis, a story which you will not have heard from the Government, their SAGE advisors or the mainstream media, requires you to read (or watch) materials produced by experts with different perspectives. These challenges to the dominant narrative have been around since the beginning of the pandemic, but censorship – in both the media and academia – may mean you have had little opportunity to access them. Not only have these specialists with opposing views been denied airtime, but in some instances there have been blatant attempts by the mainstream to discredit them. These expert scientists, who have consistently promoted a different understanding of the crisis, typically argue that the unprecedented restrictions imposed by Governments have been disproportionate and will ultimately cause far more harm than good.
A few of these experts are listed below. I encourage you to engage with this information even though you may not agree with it and the dissonance – between your existing beliefs and their views – may evoke emotional discomfort.
Professor David Katz (American physician & Professor of Public Health) – ‘Total Harm Minimization’ video interview (April 2020).
Dr John Lee (Retired professor of pathology & NHS consultant pathologist) – ‘There’s no direct evidence that the lockdowns are working’ video interview (April 2020).
Professor Michael Levitt (Professor of Structural Biology at Stanford University, and winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Chemistry) - ‘The COVID19 epidemic was never exponential’ video interview (May 2020).
Professor Carl Heneghan (Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine, University of Oxford) – ‘Masking lack of evidence with politics’ Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine article (July 2020).
Dr Martin Kuldorff (Professor of Medicine, Harvard University), Dr Sunetra Gupta (Professor of Epidemiology, Oxford University) & Dr Jay Bhattacharya (Professor of Epidemiology, Stanford University) – The Great Barrington Declaration (October 2020).
Professor John Ionnidis (Professor of Medicine, Health Research & Policy, Stanford University) – ‘Infection fatality rate of COVID-19’academic paper (Oct 2020).
Dr Malcolm Kendrick (General Practitioner) – ‘What is left to say?’ blogpost (December 2020).
Health Advisory & Recovery Team (HART) (A group of multi-disciplinary experts seeking to widen the public debate about COVID-19) – ‘COVID-19: an overview of the evidence’ booklet (March 2021).
Professor David Paton (Professor of Industrial Economics, Nottingham University) – ‘The myth of our late lockdown’ Spiked article (March 2021).
Professor Carl Heneghan (Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine, University of Oxford) – ‘The hidden death toll of lockdown’ Spectator article (April 2020).
Based on the work of these – and many more – experts, an alternative narrative to the one presented earlier might look something like this:
A novel virus (SARS-COV-2) emerged in early 2020 that was – to the elderly and those with underlying health problems - more deadly than the average flu virus. As a result, 2020 was a very bad year for respiratory viruses, with excess deaths (adjusted for age and population growth) being the highest since 2008. Lockdowns, and the strategically inflated fear levels, have done far more harm than good and are already responsible for tens of thousands of ‘collateral’ deaths. Mandatory masking of the healthy is ineffective in reducing viral transmission in real-world settings, as well as being associated with a wide range of negative physical, social and psychological consequences. Lockdowns and masking the healthy must never be used again when responding to pandemics, and instead we should revert back to the conventional plan that was supported by all public health bodies prior to 2020.
So armed with an – at least tentative - alternative framework to make sense of past and future experiences, what next? If we are not to drown in the flood of misinformation, and be able to move forward and re-discover a worthwhile life, we need to turn off the propaganda taps.
STEP 2: MINIMISE IMPACT OF FURTHER PSYCHOLOGICAL MANIPULATION
Our world is far too complex and fast-moving to allow us to deliberate about every decision. Consequently, our brains have evolved so as to enable us to act automatically most of the time when faced with the minutiae of choices we need to make each day. Human beings possess two types of thinking. These two cognitive systems have sometimes been referred to as ‘fast’ and ‘slow’, the former operating habitually at an emotional and intuitive level and the latter characterised by rational, conscious thought. The snap judgements of the fast brain are typically very helpful, allowing us to make appropriate decisions without having to rely on the limited resources of the slow brain, and much of our thinking and behaviour is influenced by external stimuli of which we have little-to-no awareness. But the flip side of us being on ‘automatic pilot’ most of the time is that it leaves us vulnerable to psychological manipulation by the Government’s behavioural scientists. And – as described in a previous blogpost - this susceptibility has been crudely exploited, with a range of covert ‘nudges’ incorporated into public health messaging to promote compliance with the COVID-19 restrictions. To free ourselves from the ethically-grubby tentacles of the Government’s propaganda monster, we must markedly reduce our exposure and susceptibility to it.
How might this be achieved?
The following actions can help us to resist the psychological manipulation:
1. Turn off the mainstream media: Since the start of the pandemic, the mainstream media channels – for example, the BBC, ITV and Sky News – have delivered an unrelenting bombardment of information, images and mantras primarily intended to inflict fear, shame and peer pressure on the British people. This onslaught continues; when scary information is hard to find domestically, the mainstream media will report on other areas of the world where COVID-19 is more prevalent. Meanwhile, potentially reassuring news stories – such as the lifting of all restrictions in some states in the USA – go unreported. To increase one’s chances of escaping from this continuous source of propaganda, turn off these channels, and consider tuning into GB News or Talk Radio – outlets that do offer a much more balanced range of views.
2. Read rather than watch: Reading books, papers and magazines requires more ‘slow brain’ activity than watching videos, thereby allowing greater opportunity for deliberation and evaluation of the subject matter.
3. Avoid isolation: The COVID-19 restrictions have made it much more difficult to interact and communicate with other human beings, and this social isolation can leave us more vulnerable to covert ‘nudges’ and other forms of psychological manipulation – the parallels with domestic abuse are clear, the abuser typically denying the victim opportunity to see friends and family. So strive to routinely meet with other people, preferably face-to-face rather than online. Ensure you communicate with like-minded individuals, perhaps by attending the anti-restriction protests or by participating in weekly ‘Stand in the Park’ initiatives in your local area. Few things are more empowering than connecting with human beings who share your concerns about the unprecedented assault on our basic human rights.
4. Learn to recognise covert psychological ‘nudges’: An increased awareness of the different types of covert psychological strategies (‘nudges’) may help to reduce their impact on our minds and behaviour. Recognising a specific technique of psychological manipulation as it happens will, to some extent, empower us to resist its influence. Some background reading may help in this regard. Familiarise yourself about how, since 2010, the behavioural scientists have been embedded within the heart of Government , promoting a range of interventions – many operating subconsciously on their targets – that can compel people to behave in ways deemed desirable by our political leaders. In addition, read accounts of how these covert psychological strategies have been deployed to increase compliance with the COVID-19 restrictions and to encourage vaccine uptake.
Another way to enhance awareness of these covert techniques is to consciously try to spot them as they happen. A daily search of the mainstream media output, with the primary aim of identifying specific ‘nudges’ in action, can be helpful. Sometimes a feeling that things don’t quite feel right, maybe an unusual sensation in the pit of your stomach, can be a useful early warning signal that you are being psychologically manipulated, and this reaction can act as a prompt to identify the culprit responsible. Alternatively, engaging in ‘nudge of the week’ challenges might also helpfully enhance our early recognition system.
5. Focus on the present moment
We all spend most of our lives in automatic mode, our minds oscillating between ruminations about the past and worries about the future. While in this state we are more susceptible to psychological manipulation. Therefore it can be helpful to purposely focus on the present moment, to take in what’s happening right here right now. A walk in the countryside, with your attention exclusively on the sights, sounds and smells that surround you, is one simple way of achieving this aim. More formally, mindfulness training – involving repeated practice to train your mind to focus solely on the present – will furnish you with this useful skill.
STEP 3: LIBERATION THROUGH ACTION
Risk is an essential part of a worthwhile life
One of the most powerful events I’ve observed over the last 16 months was a TV interview with an 80-year-old lady in a care home who told her questioner, ‘I want to live until I die’. Those seven words encapsulate much that is awry with the way that the Government and their public health specialists have reacted to the threat of a novel respiratory virus. The pandemic response promoted by the SAGE scientists - and passively accepted by the Government – has been akin to an elimination strategy, with the fantastical aim of ridding the country of SARS-COV-2. A continuous striving to minimise risk to the exclusion of everything else is silly and counterproductive. A life of lowest risk is typically one not worth living.
Every aspect of day-to-day life is associated with a degree of jeopardy. For example, each time we cross the road, drive a car, play a sport or light a barbeque, we are exposing ourselves to a very small - but not insignificant – danger of suffering serious injury or death. We can even meet our demise while opening a bottle of bubbly or while trying to put on our trousers. To push this point to a ludicrous extreme, residing permanently at home in an aseptic tank is not 100% safe - think gas explosion or aeroplane falling from the sky.
Throughout our time on this planet we are continuously – and implicitly for the most part – weighing up the pros and cons of each of our potential actions and behaving accordingly, taking the calculated risks that are essential to maintain a worthwhile and rewarding life. The question we automatically ask ourselves, time and time again, is, ‘Is this activity safe enough?’
Fear is underpinned by threatening thoughts
As discussed earlier, the Government’s COVID-19 communications strategy has inflated the fears of the British public and, as a consequence, many people remain anxious about re-engaging with other human beings despite the likelihood that it is now ‘safe enough’. Fear is underpinned by threatening beliefs and the legacy of the propaganda onslaught is that a sizeable proportion of the population retain high conviction in thoughts such as:
‘Every human is a biohazard’;
‘If I mix with other people I will contract COVID and die’;
‘A drink in the pub is likely to result in me passing on a deadly virus to the people I love’.
In order to return to a normal, satisfying life, these kind of anxiety-laden predictions need to be challenged and disconfirmed. To achieve this end requires both a rational evaluation of the validity of these sort of beliefs along with real-life experience of putting ourselves into the situations that we fear. The intellectual construction of a less threatening COVID-19 narrative – such as what might follow from Step 1, above – is necessary to overcome anxiety but it is typically not sufficient; exposure to the things that we fear is also required. A person with a spider phobia will not overcome the problem solely from reading that British spiders are almost always harmless; spending time in proximity with them is also necessary. There is an important difference between knowing with the head and knowing with the heart.
The role of ‘safety behaviour’ in maintaining fear
But there is an important exception to the rule that our direct exposure to the things we fear will enable us to feel more comfortable in these previously avoided situations: when we adopt ‘safety behaviours’. A useful way of conceptualising fear is to see it as the emotional consequence of a threatening belief, a prediction that something bad will happen – for example, ‘If I mix with other people I will contract COVID and die’. A safety behaviour is a precaution that a person purposely employs when in contact with the feared entity, such as the wearing of a cloth mask in community settings. When someone adopts a safety behaviour when returning to a normal lifestyle they will likely attribute their survival to the safety behaviour (wearing a mask) rather than drawing the reassuring conclusion that it is now safe enough to pick up on previously abandoned social activities, thereby transforming their benign experiences into ‘near misses’ and prolonging anxiety.
Actions to escape the fear shackles
For those people who wish to overcome their fears about returning to a normal lifestyle the central message is that they must routinely interact with other human beings without deploying safety behaviours. This message is not an endorsement to be reckless with one’s health, more an encouragement to return to the common sense of old. Thus, if suffering symptomatic illness, minimise your contact with others, don’t sneeze or cough in people’s faces, and consider seeing your GP for medical advice. Prior to an action, each person should gauge his/her own level of risk from respiratory viruses, just as we do with the multitude of other risks we all face in our day-to-day lives. In regards to SARS-COV-2, each individual’s decision will take into account accurate information about current viral prevalence, individual risk factors (such as age and underlying health problems) and one’s level of immunity (based on previous infection and vaccine status). The overarching aim is to empower people to pro-actively make their own, individually-tailored decisions rather than allow their behaviour to be shaped by state ‘nudges’.
The process of re-connection with our fellow humans can be achieved either in gradual steps or by an immediate plunge into the myriad of normal social activities, depending upon your level of fear and the extent of your current isolation. For example, if highly anxious and a routine mask wearer, you might consider going without a face covering one venue at a time, perhaps dropping this safety behaviour first in shops, then in pubs and restaurants, and finally on public transport. Similarly, full contact with friends and family can involve an incremental increase in social contacts or an immediate immersion in a large communal gathering.
Physical contact with others is a basic human need so – if, like most of us, you were previously inclined to shake hands, hug and kiss acquaintances – routinely engage in these normal behaviours. Choosing to avoid close physical contact of this sort will prolong anxieties. And do not submit to nonsensical directives, such as the ‘Rule of six’ and one-way pedestrian systems, just because you think ‘it’s no big deal’ – these constitute avoidant behaviours and will also perpetuate fear. And ditch the mask and any other protective clothing when in community settings, otherwise these safety behaviours will render your efforts at human re-connection ineffective in reducing emotional discomfort.
In conclusion, we either reclaim our humanity and return to a normal life, or endure an indefinite period of anxious existence. The choice is yours. I don’t know about you but I want to live until I die.
Photo by Ekaterina Shakharova on Unsplash