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Essays

The mind-killer

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

‘Litany Against Fear’ – Frank Herbert, Dune

The near-universal response by governments to the Sars-Cov-2 virus over the last eight months has been incomprehensibly stupid. I’m embarrassed to be stating that plainly for the first time in public at such a late hour. I have been a coward. I lost my mind to fear.

Not fear of the virus. It seemed strange to me even before lockdown started that COVID-19 was generating so much anxiety. Even if the wildly hyperbolic predictions of the alarmists at Imperial College London were to be believed, and half a million were going to die from it, it didn’t present much of a risk to any given individual. There are nearly 67 million people living in the UK after all, and 600,000 people die on average each year. Most of whom are old, already seriously ill people who are finished off by some infection or another. Yes, it would have broken the NHS and yes, it would have been horrific to witness bodies piling up, but it would be a far cry from the kind of horrors that the West has inflicted on say, Iraq, or Libya, or Palestine in recent memory. Small potatoes compared to the 3.1 million children who die every year due to malnutrition.

Then, as the data rolled in, it became undeniable that Sars-Cov-2, by itself, wasn’t nearly as deadly as the WHO and the government’s hand-picked scientific experts were making out. (Which should’ve been obvious even to them, since one of the golden rules of epidemiology is that early estimates of the death rate for any new disease are guaranteed to be overestimates as only the worst cases show up at hospital to be counted.)

“…even some so-called mild or common-cold-type coronaviruses that have been known for decades can have case fatality rates as high as 8% when they infect elderly people in nursing homes. These “mild” coronaviruses may be implicated in several thousands of deaths every year worldwide, though the vast majority of them are not documented with precise testing. Instead, they are lost as noise among 60 million deaths from various causes every year.”

John P.A. Ioannidis, professor of medicine, epidemiology and population health, as well as professor by courtesy of biomedical data science at Stanford University School of Medicine, March 17, 2020

So it wasn’t fear of the virus that kept me from speaking out. It was fear of other people’s fear. Fear of, as it seemed to me, an uncountable mass of people all moving together as one, terrified, irrational unit. Fear of a great uniformity of opinion, held with such zeal that it would make holding a contrary opinion grounds for ostracism, social exile. Fear of being pushed into the out group, branded an anti vaxxer, called a right-wing nutjob. In my more extreme fantasies this involved being beaten up by masked mobs. More prosaically, I feared not being invited to things. A terrifying prospect because I am human. An ape. A social animal. An animal that can die of loneliness.

It can also die from fear.

It’s a strange space for me to occupy, fuming about these injunctions to keep yourself to yourself, when that’s what I’ve spent most of my life doing. I like to be alone. I like to be an outsider. I like to consider myself standing apart from it all, watching the madness unfold. My views on 9/11, the War on Terror, the global financial crisis, Trump and Brexit often led to uncomfortable moments at social gatherings. Moments where, appalled by the intellectual shallowness of the liberal consensus, but too afraid to out myself as a heretic, I’d more often than not choose to keep quiet. Why rock the boat? After all, these issues were more or less academic. Unlike the totalitarianism that stole in under the cover of Covid.

And lockdown was good for me in many ways. Forced into the role of full-time parent, I could stop worrying about what to do with myself. I no longer had to deal with the anxiety that always preceded social gatherings or the depression that would often follow them. Lockdown took away the pressure of having to find things to talk about with other people. It helped me to remember how important my children and partner are to me, how their love sustains me far more than worldly success or the approval of peers.

But the peace, even joy, to be found in those early experiences of lockdown and social distancing was always bracketed with sadness about the terrible costs of those policies and apprehension about what would come next. The mounting data from countries that did and didn’t lock down makes the difference increasingly clear: there was no difference to the trajectory of the virus. It came, it did its thing, it receded. Like viruses always have and always will. It’ll come back when the air gets cold and dry in winter. In any case, there is no compelling evidence that mass-quarantine measures, enforced business shutdowns, travel bans, social distancing and mandatory mask-wearing rules are even effective at limiting the spread of infectious respiratory diseases. If they were, you’d expect the number of reported deaths from flu to have fallen along with reported deaths from Covid-19. They haven’t.

And yet here we are in the grip of a madness, a pseudo-scientific statistical fetishism, from which it seems impossible to walk back. What started out as an injunction to ‘flatten the curve’ and ‘save lives’ mutated into an order to ‘keep the virus under control’ when it became clear that the death toll was never going to reach six figures. Now our duties are simply to perform the rituals. ‘Hands. Face. Space.’ And be prepared to lockdown again at any moment. Because COVID.

The non-stop barrage of fear messaging did its work in those early days, the days of the panic buying, the rolling death counters, the daily briefings, the grossly incompetent computer models predicting half a million fatalities. That’s when the government and the media (isn’t it funny how those two institutions play so nicely together in a crisis) jacked right into our limbic systems. Mass media delivering mass electric shock therapy. Panicking doctors. Morgue trucks. Faces of the deceased. Images of spiky balls. Politicians in face masks. Stopping thought. Killing mind.

“…in moments of crisis, people are willing to hand over a great deal of power to anyone who claims to have a magic cure—whether the crisis is a financial meltdown or, as the Bush administration would later show, a terrorist attack.”

― Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism

Having succumbed wholly to fear of the virus, it would now look incredibly foolish to admit that the fear was unwarranted, that overnight we became a planet of obsessive-compulsive germophobes. We would be ashamed to notice and admit that, despite all our worries about digital technology isolating us and distracting us and putting us in echo chambers and sexualising us too early and keeping us in dark rooms when we should be out in the sunshine and ruining our sleep and making us anxious and invading our privacy and ruining polite debate, when the spectre of our own mortality, our own corporeality, our own ape-animal nature came beaming out of our screens from Wuhan, Italy, Spain, we plunged gratefully, heedlessly, totally into that yawning digital chasm. We gladly repressed our desire for social contact with people outside our nuclear family in favour of communication that is sterile both medically and emotionally. We happily walked away from the mild disgust we feel when confronted by the physical reality of other people and rushed to embrace the excuse we found in ‘protecting the NHS’, which was shuttered and mothballed even as we clapped for it. And we went along with it when we were told that our children, despite being exposed to almost zero risk from this virus, should be placed in total isolation from their peers for months on end despite no clue as to what effect that might have on an entire generation of young people because nobody ever tried it before. We shoved them into the cold embrace of digital technology, of passive acceptance, of remote engagement, distance learning, no contact, no touch, no smell, none of the myriad subtle non-verbal communication cues that they’ve only just begun to start learning. Because, we were told, it would keep them safe.

Yeah, alright, you got me. I’m being disingenuous. I’m giving it ‘we’ this and ‘we’ that, but the subjective-collective I’m referring to doesn’t exist, does it? You might have been going along with it all because you genuinely thought we were in the midst of a deadly pandemic, or at least thought that the chances of half a million deaths in the UK was great enough to risk tanking the economy and forcing nearly everyone in the country to sacrifice their mental health and general well being for a while. If so, I hope you stuck rigidly to the rules. I went along with it because I was afraid of being persecuted for non-compliance – through social shaming, reduced access to career and economic opportunity, even the threat of physical violence. But whatever the specific nature of the fear, it was nevertheless fear that was driving our actions. Fear pushed us over the event horizon of totalitarianism.

And now that we’ve crossed that bridge, how can we not burn it behind us? How can we resist repressing the awful knowledge that it was all completely unnecessary? How can we possibly take our share of the blame for throwing millions out of work, destroying thousands of small and medium sized businesses, smashing the culture sector to smithereens, delaying the diagnosis of thousands of cancers, inflicting the psychological torture of solitary confinement on those who live alone, precipitating untold misery for the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people whose precarious existence depends on the continuous functioning of the massively interconnected global economy?

(Don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of the way the global economy is organised. I will be writing about it soon. Ad nauseum. But turning off huge chunks of it overnight means that millions and millions of deaths are coming down the road, way more than will ever be attributable to Covid-19, no matter how liberally those deaths are counted.)

No, far better to pretend it was all entirely necessary. Far better to ignore the fact that more people are now dying from the flu than Covid-19 and have been for months and pretend that we need to protect the ‘vulnerable’ from the dreaded second wave. Far better to start counting positive test results as ‘cases’ even if nobody got sick and use that to justify our new predeliction for anti-social behaviour. (Any idea how many people would test positive for influenza if we swabbed everyone? No. So what are we supposed to compare these numbers to, exactly? What could they possibly mean, bereft of any such context?) Far better to pretend that it’s been nice to slow down, ‘hit pause’, hear the birdsong, breathe the clean air, talk to our nans on Zoom, briefly decimate the carbon emissions. Far better to mask up, shut up and get ready for the Great Reset.

Until you consider the trade off more carefully.

Even if you think that you’ll escape the privations of the coming global economic depression (you won’t), do you really think the chance to practice more mindfulness, or ‘experience’ nature in your own back yard (if you’re lucky enough to have one) compensates for etherialising yourself completely, for rejecting your own place in nature as a mortal human being? A being whose very existence relies on the interdependence of all living things. A being whose immune system, honed by millions of years of evolution (in which viruses play an important role), relies on regular close contact with others of its kind to perform properly.

Because the paranoia, the shutdowns, the social distancing, the working from home (how much rent is your employer paying you for their new office space, btw?) the face masks, the death-count-case-number-long-covid-second-wave fear mongering – none of it is going away any time soon. All governments are authoritarian. It’s been baked in since Sumer. So don’t expect them to hand back the new powers they’ve accrued. Meanwhile, the ultra wealthy are doing very nicely out of this crisis, just like they do in every crisis. And since they own and control the majority of the world’s media, the crisis will continue. Unless we start admitting some painful truths.

We must admit that we allowed all these fast, huge decisions to be made for us on the basis of fear, not science. We must admit that we surrendered our most fundamental freedoms – of movement, of association, of expression – not in a public health emergency but in thrall to a sensationalist scare story backed, as always, by the implicit threat of state violence. And we must admit that we really are nothing more than social, emotional, disease-prone apes, clinging to each other and this life-infested rock in desperate, paralysing fear of our own mortality.

Because only after we face that fear, accept that fear, let that fear do its thing and then let that fear go, will we be able to find ourselves again. Only when we remember that life and death are not mutually exclusive states, but two sides of the same coin – and that fleeing in terror from one necessarily means fleeing in terror from the other – will we be able to dispassionately survey this strange new terrain in which we find ourselves. Only then will we be able to work out what the fuck is going on and what to do about it.

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

Julius Caesar – William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

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