Last Saturday, I faced a dilemma. A friend had told me about a ‘mass gathering’ in Hyde Park. A Facebooker she knew who called himself an astrologer, tarot reader and love guru had forwarded her the details. Urging people to protest against the lockdown by turning up with picnics and music, the UK Freedom Movement wanted everyone to ‘have some fun and say yes to life’. Though that sounded quite hedonistic, the only UK Freedom Movement with a website is made up of nationalists who want to ‘shake up British politics like never before’ and ‘fly the Union Jack at every opportunity we get’. By Friday, Twitter was abuzz with complaints, and two rival Islamophobes were denying involvement. I felt conflicted. Gathering en masse during a pandemic is inherently dumb, and the likely gatherers weren’t my kind of people. But the possibility of a new age neo-fascist love-in was too intriguing to miss.
I wrestled with my conscience. It’s hard to say who won, but the outcome was a compromise. It would be acceptable to cycle round Hyde Park, I decided, so long as I showed my disapproval of picnicking and protesting by wearing a mask. I duly bumped in to about 300 demonstrators milling around Speaker’s Corner, and spent half-an-hour loitering non-committally on the sidelines. There were flag-waving patriots, drum-banging Hare Krishnas, prophets of doom and admirers of Julian Assange. One man wanted people to remember God; another demanded that everyone remember Jeffrey Epstein. A speech by Piers Corbyn – the battier brother of Jeremy – was cut short by his arrest, but not before he instructed listeners not to be brainwashed and to remember that COVID-19 isn’t contagious on sunny days. It was a cacophony, but a couple of themes were recurrent. No one liked Bill Gates, and everyone seemed to agree that vaccinations were somehow at fault.
That’s triply weird, given that a COVID-19 vaccine doesn’t exist and may never be developed, but it’s underpinned by a logic of sorts. A narrative that’s been energising US anti-lockdown protests for more than a month now holds that Silicon Valley, in cahoots with Big Pharma, is whipping up fear because its leading figures stand to profit from a vaccine. And as Bill Gates was targeted by right-wing Republicans (because his medical priorities contrast so dramatically with those of President Trump), people on this side of the Atlantic took notice. One of them was ‘professional conspiracy researcher’ David Icke. Three weeks after recycling a bizarre theory about 5G telephone signals and COVID-19 without mentioning Gates, Icke disclosed on 6 April that Microsoft’s founder was ‘one of the most sinister people on Planet Earth’. In a broadcast that promptly became legendary among anti-vaxxers, he identified Gates as a member of a murderous cult that plans to control humanity using not just 5G frequencies, but microchips, nanotechnology and vaccines ‘full of shite’.
David Icke isn’t renowned for rigorous thinking. His most consistent opinion, maintained now for more than twenty years, is a belief that the world is governed by shape-shifting reptiles. Even people who greatly fear political manipulation typically think him unhinged. As a consequence, it was striking to hear an echo of his views outside Hyde Park on Saturday, when I stopped at Portobello Road on the way home. I told my regular mushroom supplier that I’d just been to a big picnic, and though I was smiling, he nodded grimly. He’d stayed away, he said, because ‘it’s not yet time, you gotta play the game’.
Eyebrows raised, I asked what that meant – and a very detailed explanation ensued. To paraphrase, Tom wouldn’t say he was anti-vaxx, he doesn’t know what to make of Bill Gates and 5G, and all he really understands about COVID-19 is that it isn’t as contagious as they say, but he wishes there could be a proper debate on TV. Stuff’s being hidden by scientific journals, he believes, and the mainstream media isn’t telling the full story. But he’s going to stick by the rules for the time being, because the financial support he’s received from the government is tiny, and he needs to sell his mushrooms. ‘You gotta play the game.’
It’s always risky to read too much into a single conversation. Anecdotes are no basis for theories. But the conversation with Tom didn’t just crystallise what had been obvious in Hyde Park: that lockdown impatience is breeding scepticism. It also made me recall a trio of modern cataclysms – the World Trade Center attacks, the Iraq War and Brexit – and the way that hesitant political divisions involving all three had quickly become chasms of misunderstanding. And though the speed with which those disasters have receded into history is a reminder that no aftermath lasts forever, the latest new normal feels particularly destabilising. My opinions about mass murder, civil liberties, military aggression and nationalism were almost predictable – but COVID-19’s riddles have thrown me. Questions about individual rights and duties and what governments should do to protect the vulnerable from the irresponsible are familiar, but the answers are suddenly personal. It’s not just whether to sacrifice some privacy and download a contact-tracing app; even watching picnickers is a moral choice.
The conflict between individual and collective interests is reflected starkly by attitudes towards a COVID-19 vaccine. Even assuming such a thing feasible, many people too fragile to be jabbed would remain susceptible to infection until at least 60% of the population, perhaps more, gained immunity. One person’s opt-out wouldn’t kill anyone – except, perhaps, the opter-outer – but collective abstentions certainly could. Deciding hypothetically to dissent might be principled; it’s certainly selfish.
Individualism isn’t irrational, and it’s not paranoid to point out that governments sometimes invoke the common good to cloak injustice and repression. But opposition to vaccination is regressive, all the same. That’s why the world’s poorer populations trust vaccines most, and it’s why Western opponents tend to be under-educated, politically disillusioned and socially disengaged. And though anti-vaxxing sentiments aren’t quite as capricious as the fears of 5G might suggest – because they’re part of a protest tradition that originated in reaction to 19th-century laws that made smallpox vaccinations compulsory – the instinctive disrespect for communal safety isn’t inspiring.
Less than a mile from Speakers’ Corner stands a memorial to Edward Jenner, the physician who coined the word ‘vaccine’, and as I cycled away from Saturday’s protest, I stopped to say hello. As a direct consequence of a pamphlet Jenner published in 1798, it became routine to immunise people against smallpox by injecting them with harmless doses of cowpox – and though it’s impossible to calculate how much suffering that alleviated, the number of lives saved runs into hundreds of millions.
The statue gets no more attention today than any of the other bronzes littering London, but it used to be more prominent. When unveiled in May 1858, it was in Trafalgar Square. Within days, MPs were demanding that ‘the promulgator of cowpox nonsense’ be removed, because he was ‘altogether out of place among statues of our naval and military heroes.’ Less than three years later, Jenner duly yielded his spot to Henry Havelock, a senior army officer who had died heroically of dysentery during the second Siege of Lucknow. The British Medical Journal wasn’t pleased, but it kept its criticisms sardonic. Jenner’s expulsion made sense, it observed, because ‘his honourable neighbours killed their fellow creatures whereas he only saved them’. Today’s anti-vaxxers might have some history on their side, but that’s a decent epitaph.