Freedom and Covid

This is a modified version of a talk Rowan Fortune given for ZeroCovid on the reactionary thought behind opposition to public health policies during the Coronavirus pandemic.


There are a heady mix of anti-vaccine claims linked to Covid-19. Some are startlingly improbable from a cursory glance, such as that vaccines contain microchips used to track us. But many have a respectable veneer, however thin. One claim, for example, is that mRNA-based vaccines operate by altering human DNA, conjuring associations with mutation; this is not the case, but for those who do not know the science as fully as researchers dedicating their lives to such vaccines (and I include myself) it can be made to sound plausible.

Debunked claims include that the vaccine causes infertility in women or can result in antibody-dependent enhancement, an overreaction of the human immune system. These types of claims proliferate on blogs, online videos and status updates, shared on groups built to spread such fears and concerns. Many of the concerns stem from older fears of vaccines, such as those debunked claims that gravitate around Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent 1998 paper, inventing a link between MMR vaccines and cases of the fictional Autistic enterocolitis condition. Although equally, the reasons for the low uptake of the anti-vaccine movement here in the UK might even be based on the legacy of Wakefield and his public debunking.

What has not been debunked is a specific concern related to the AstraZeneca vaccine. About 10 in every million doses has resulted in a rare blood clotting condition, and in a few of those cases this has resulted in death. While a cause for concern, this does not outweigh the advantages of the vaccine for recipients. Anti-vaccine narratives will not weight the extensive dangers of Covid-19 when reviewing this incredibly low risk, but prefer to inflate particular tragedies through evocative stories.

Anti-lockdown arguments, meanwhile, centre on more generalised claims about Covid-19 itself. The numbers of deaths and cases are said to be exaggerated, or at least the risks to certain types of people—it is alleged—are given too much stress. The virus is compared to other risks and health problems, such as those associated with mental health, which are said to be so heightened by lockdown that the costs of this approach exceed its benefits. Little evidence beyond anecdotes and speculation are offered for these claims, which undoubtedly do draw from the real inconvenience and pain people have experienced.

There are, it must be said, reasons people feel aggrieved by lockdown conditions. Separation from family and friends is painful, even tragic when a family member passes. Relationships of dependency, educations and so on are disrupted. And many have lost jobs and financial stability, not simply because of lockdown, but the government’s derisory handling of it. The general approach of the government compounds the problem. Every month, even every week, people hear conflicting messages from a Tory regime that has lost control of the situation. Amber countries, eat out to help out, corrupt PPE contracts. None of this is a foundation for a coherent health strategy.

Given all of this, should we even attempt to uncover a politics for the anti-lockdown movements? Is it not just disparate people, with a range of motives, even degrees of conviction, uniting only in shared confusion? I argue, against this, that we should uncover the politics beneath a definite movement, not because every individual who attends anti-lockdown rallies or posts anti-vaccine conspiracy theories is of one mind, but because there nonetheless is an organising force at work. Alone the bad government approach could explain discontent, but not a sustained movement against lockdown and vaccines that lacks any credible claims to underscore its arguments. Why has this discontent not, for example, expressed itself in the credible demand for a coherent approach, such as that advocated by Zero Covid?

Josephine Armistead in her essay on ‘The Silicon Ideology’, examines the new, highly online manifestations of the far right (sometimes called alt-right, neo-reactionary, etc.). She describes the ‘ideological predecessor of neo-reactionary thought: namely, the techno-utopian right-libertarianism pervasive in the tech industry.’ When the KCL’s Claire Crawford observes the libertarian rhetoric at the heart of the anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine movement, then, it is worth pausing on the connection between right-wing libertarian ideas and the far right more generally. The anti-lockdown movement claims to be first and foremost about freedom, this is their primary trick to obscure their real politics.  Crawford writes:

Lately, I have regularly drifted into the anti-mask, anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown UK Twittersphere. Popular hashtags include #MasksOff, #NoToLockdown and #KBF (‘Keep Britain Free’). There are references to “muzzles” which discursively link the issue to free speech debates, and appropriation of the abortion rights movement’s language with hashtags like #MyBodyMyChoice and #ProChoice. There are frequent comparisons between mask-wearing and slavery, and yellow stars embellished with ‘I am exempt’ or ‘no vaccine passports’ in font intended to resemble Hebrew. Many of these accounts will make statements about freedom and liberty: of speech, of thought, from lockdown, from the state, from lies, from tyranny. While this is an ideologically mixed, or even confused, digital space, many here identify as “libertarian”.

claire crawford

Antifascists in the US frequently talk of the libertarian to fascist pipeline. A notable trend of online libertarian microcelebrities to travel in a Trumpian or even more explicitly fascistic direction has been observed by researchers, journalists and activists. Many in the rationalist, sceptic, atheist spheres of 00s YouTube would migrate to antifeminism, the reactionary manosphere, and then to the alt-right, racial pseudoscience and conspiracy theory. But all the while, they retain a libertarian rhetoric as well as a fondness for a South Park style of irreverence and shock humour. This is the milieu that serves as the backdrop for anti-lockdown sentiments in the UK.

One ‘Unite for Freedom’ protest in London drew attention for featuring a British Union of Fascists flag. This symbol of old-fashioned fascism, while rightly shocking, is a grotesque relic. The same could not be said of Trumpians, Q Anon conspiracy theorists, those wearing the fascist ‘thin blue line’ pro-police symbol and so on, all evident on these rallies. The internet is critical to today’s far right, and therefore to anti-lockdown and vaccine conspiracies. Q Anon and the ilk, representing an older demographic than the countercultural, trolling fascists on 8-chan anon boards and elsewhere, took root on Facebook groups. And while social media companies ostensibly try to reverse some of the damage in this culture war, they are finding it predictably difficult. Online spaces are hard to control, as the architecture of the internet favours easily consumed, sensationalist and shallow content—an apt description of any anti-vax or anti-lockdown propaganda.

This movement looks to a number of strange luminaries and conspiracy theorists as its leaders, all of whom help reveal its character. Prominent in the UK we have the antisemitic populariser of the shape shifting lizard people myth, David Ike; the racist would-be mayor of London, Laurence Fox; Climate Change denier and brother of Jeremy Corbyn, Piers Corbyn; and Tory MP Desmond Swayne, otherwise notable for appearing on racist conspiracy shows. Such people are sometimes difficult to take seriously, but they are capable of pulling thousands to their marches, legitimising and mainstreaming their views. What is undeniable about all of these people is that they are extreme reactionaries to their core, and identify in this cause something useful to furthering that politics.

The factors that result in some people personally coming to question a sound public health approach to the pandemic would not, in themselves, result in a movement. Just as the false Autism and MMR link was made by a tiny number of parents before Wakefield, it required Wakefield’s intervention to create a movement. So we could expect an organic but trivial number of people to adopt these views around Covid-19 and its prevention, but it requires leadership and a single, ideological narrative framework to make it something more dangerous.

Crawford rightly observes, ‘The theoretical libertarian foundations and the more outlandish conspiracy theories fuelling the anti-lockdown movement are from the US context, and more specifically, they are white supremacist.’ She is right, even if that does not mean that everyone caught up in these movements is wholeheartedly a white supremacist.

Still, a further caveat, hinted before, needs to be added. In June, the Guardian reported that one in four elderly Black people were not vaccinated, compared to only 10% of white people in the same demographic. Vaccine hesitancy does not have only one cause, even if the primary movement that encourages it is deeply tied to white supremacy. An earlier study of the reasons for hesitancy in Black and other minority ethnic demographics showed, to quote the Guardian: ‘Nearly half of the BAME people who said they would not have the vaccine (45%) said they would refuse it due to lack of information. Almost two in five said they believed it was unsafe (37%) while a quarter said they did not trust the science behind it or simply did not want it (26%).’

Similarly, it has been indicated that people in the queer community are likelier to be vaccine hesitant at least in the US. The fear of such groups stem from systemic power imbalances, rather than an ideology rooted in the preservation of power as we find with the mainstay of the anti-lockdown right. The motives here are different to that behind Q Anon, although there is nothing preventing the anti-lockdown movement from hiding behind such hesitancy amongst the oppressed. Our response must be to call out such bad faith for what it is; clearly, from the movement’s wider association, Q Anon and other anti-lockdown groups and individuals are no friends to the oppressed, caring about them only insofar as it furthers their anti-public health goals.

The truth is that in the context of widespread societal structural racism, and a history of colonialism with present day consequences, a history that includes outright medical experimentation on Black people and anti-queer medical gatekeeping, distrust of the medical establishment has deep historical justifications from the impacted groups. This can only be overcome, however, through an antiracist, queer liberationist but nonetheless politically clear message. After these very communities have been shown to be especially vulnerable to the pandemic, a low uptake of the vaccine compounds rather than responds to injustices. To tackle this hesitancy, however, injustices cannot be swept aside, but must be tackled directly. The UK government is patently unable to do so.

Broadly speaking, then, it is the far right that owns and dominates the anti-lockdown, anti-vaccination rhetoric and movement. While we should always be aware of the two-sidedness of social phenomena, we need to see past the shallow trappings of these currents to identify the ugly reality. It would be wrong to make vaccines mandatory, to have the state enforce them on everyone, as the far right like to fantasise in their self-justificatory stories. Such a non-solution would bypass deeper problems of social solidarity by appealing directly to state power, reinforcing the very atomisation and despair that gave rise to these problems initially. But we need to project a message that is clear: vaccines are fundamental to overcoming Covid-19, the concerns around them are exaggerated and often baseless.  

What does such a far right have to gain from this calculation? By playing on the fears and problems of the most atomised layers of society, layers fuelled by resentments against the oppressed all while co-opting and distorting the language of oppression, they cement a force that can be turned to other ends. This is helped along by foregrounding a conception of freedom rooted only in property ownership and negative liberty, one that implicitly forecloses the social change needed for those excluded from power to liberate themselves. The idea of freedom at the core of this reactionary movement is part of the point; freedom to live free of social responsibility, freedom to dominate others, is not a freedom worthy of the name. This is the freedom of minority rule extended to its absurd breaking point.

How do we counter a far right that dresses its conspiracies and opposition even to public health in the language of emancipation and freedom, often to the point of outright parodying the movements of the oppressed as well as the left? We must make a positive case for an enabling freedom. A freedom to live one’s life fully, a freedom that is furthered by overcoming Covid-19.

This is surely at the core of the struggle for Zero Covid. In her piece, Crawford perceptively draws from Frantz Fanon’s work. As a theorist of oppression in the context of colonialism, Fanon is an apt reference. Someone indebted to Fanon, Paulo Freire, has much to say to further enrich the point. He wrote: ‘Men and women rarely admit their fear of freedom openly, however, tending rather to camouflage it—sometimes unconsciously—by presenting themselves as defenders of freedom. They give their doubts and misgivings an air of profound sobriety, as befitting the custodians of freedom.’ With fascism recruiting from reactionary libertarianism, Freire’s assessment is truly timely today.

Zero Covid needs to articulate a liberating vision around vaccines, freed from the trappings of this false, far right, libertarian-styled concept of freedom. Masks, lockdowns and vaccines need to be framed in terms of social solidarity, shared agency and the drive for a freer world. At the same time, there can be no ground given to far-right adjacent arguments that fuel the anti-lockdown movement. These will not always be clear in their origin, and sometimes such arguments are made wholly in good faith. The best counter, finally, is to emphasise the liberating potential of a Zero Covid strategy. Not the freedom of someone to infect others with a debilitating and sometimes deadly virus, but the freedom to live in a world without the threat of Covid-19.

Below are the links for the talk, the first is Rowan followed by Annie Kelly who also spoke at the event.

Art Book Review Books Capitalism China Climate Emergency Conservative Government Conservative Party COVID-19 Creeping Fascism Economics EcoSocialism Elections Europe Event Video Fascism Film Film Review France Gaza Global Police State History Imperialism Israel Italy Keir Starmer Labour Party London Long Read Marxism Marxist Theory Migrants NATO Palestine pandemic Police Protest Russia Solidarity Statement Trade Unionism Trans*Mission Ukraine United States of America War

Rowan Fortune authored Writing Nowhere; edited the anthology of utopian short fiction Citizens of Nowhere; and contributed to the collaborative book System Crash. It writes on utopian imagination, revolutionary theory and trans* liberation.

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