Bullshit Health Hell in a handcart

Conspiracy magnets

Something that’s become really apparent in the final days of the Trump administration is that cranks of a feather flock together. If you believe that the US election has been stolen, chances are you also believe that the COVID vaccine contains microchips, and that furniture shop Wayfair traffics stolen children.

Thanks to Twitter I discovered that there’s a name for this phenomenon: crank magnetism. As RationalWiki puts it:

A sovereign citizen, a creationist, an anti-vaxxer, and a conspiracy theorist walk into a bar. He orders a drink.

The reason for it is very simple. Believing in a conspiracy theory means denying evidence, denying authority, denying reality. And once you do that once, once you decide that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary the people in authority are covering something up, you’re much more open to the idea that they’re covering other things up too.

To put it simply: once you believe they’re covering up one thing, it’s easy to believe that they’re covering up everything.

For example, if you believe that mainstream medicine is covering up the efficacy of homeopathy or of ancient Chinese medicine, it isn’t much of a leap to believe that mainstream medicine is covering up the links between MMR and autism. If you believe that Big Pharma is being funded by the Jews to turn everybody trans, it’s hardly a stretch to believe that Big Pharma created COVID to sell vaccines or that those vaccines contain microchips.

Once you deny one reality, you can easily end up denying all reality. You can see that in the COVID deniers, in the QAnon craze, in the ludicrous things people believe about marginalised groups.

The conspiracies don’t even need to make sense, or fit with a coherent worldview. Studies have found that conspiracists will happily believe conspiracies that contradict each other – so if you believe that Princess Diana faked her own death, you’re also highly likely to believe that Princess Diana was murdered. The specifics don’t really matter: either way, there’s a cover-up.

It’d be fascinating if it weren’t so frightening.


COVID year two

Ed Yong is one of the best science reporters we have, and his COVID reporting for The Atlantic has been superb. He’s just published his final piece of 2020: Where Year Two of the Pandemic Will Take Us. It’s for a US audience but it’s relevant to many other countries too.

How does a country learn from its mistakes if it cannot even agree on whether it made any?


Mistakes were made

As far as I’m aware, The New Yorker has only devoted its entire issue to a single story once before, for reporting on Hiroshima. And now it’s done it again for this incredible piece of journalism, The Plague Year. It’s very long, very detailed and very powerful.

There are three moments in the yearlong catastrophe of the covid-19 pandemic when events might have turned out differently. The first occurred on January 3, 2020, when Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spoke with George Fu Gao, the head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which was modelled on the American institution. Redfield had just received a report about an unexplained respiratory virus emerging in the city of Wuhan.


Happy days are (nearly) here again

It’s hard to be optimistic in these dark days (I don’t just mean metaphorically: I live in Scotland, where the sun doesn’t so much rise at this time of year as send a few expletives into the sky before going back to bed). And it’s harder still with more serious COVID restrictions about to come into force: from Friday, Glasgow will effectively be in lockdown apart from supermarkets and schools. So here’s a reason to be cautiously cheerful: the end of the pandemic is now in sight.

The piece, by Sarah Zhang for The Atlantic, is a fascinating explanation of what the new vaccines are, why they’re revolutionary and most of all, why they’re probably going to work. And if they don’t, why we probably won’t be vaccine-less for long.

The vaccine by itself cannot slow the dangerous trajectory of COVID-19 hospitalizations this fall or save the many people who may die by Christmas. But it can give us hope that the pandemic will end. Every infection we prevent now—through masking and social distancing—is an infection that can, eventually, be prevented forever through vaccines.


“Some of us felt you leave”

A powerful Twitter thread by writer and academic Alice Tarbuck:

I have been schooling my tongue, but I would just like to say: for those of us living alone, COVID feels like a sudden ‘stop’ in a game of musical chairs. There are those who found a seat, already found spouses, had children, acquired pets. There are those of us who didn’t.

And of course, everybody’s situation is hard. But all the people whose shutters came down, who were able to retreat into their households and didn’t need to reach out for social/emotional support and so didn’t, well. Not everybody is in that position. Some of us felt you leave.

And I am delighted that people have lives they can retreat into and not be on their own! Just delighted! But I wonder if there might be consideration of what it means to break contact, to stop reaching out, when others don’t have that luxury, when others might need that contact.

Nobody chose to be lonely, and nobody is as safe in their un-loneliness as they think they are.

Kindness should never be extended as apotropaic* magic, of course, but perhaps ‘treating others as one would wish to be treated’ wards against your own future chair-stop.

Because goodness, one day you might wish it had been.

* Having the power to avert evil or bad luck. I had to look it up.


Wait until tomorrow

Some of my songs are about people who are struggling, either because of the situation they’re in or because of the chemistry in their heads. It’s a subject close to my heart because I struggle too, and some days are considerably harder than others.

Our song A Moment of Clarity is about that. It clearly resonates with people: almost every time I’ve played it live, whether with the band or solo at an open mic or live-streamed video, I’ve had people tell me that it has connected with them in a really powerful way. Everybody has their struggles.

On the worst days, three words have been really helpful to me: wait until tomorrow.

Wait until tomorrow is a deal you make with yourself. You’re not going to try and persuade yourself that what you’re feeling isn’t real, or try to convince yourself that things aren’t as bad as they seem to be right now. All you’re going to do is wait until tomorrow.

And if you still feel the same tomorrow?

We’ll deal with that tomorrow.

I’ve found that some of the very worst days are like a severe storm. In real-world storms, ordinary things turn on us. The wind damages property, fells trees, turns ordinary objects into projectiles; the rain makes land slip and roads flood. Mental storms do much the same, and in some cases do the mental equivalent of a hurricane throwing a cow through the front of your house.

But all storms, even the very worst ones, pass.

And when you wait until tomorrow, you’ll often find that your one does too.

And if it doesn’t?

We can deal with that tomorrow.

If you’re struggling with mental health, help is available: I’ve listed a lot of helplines, including LGBT+ specific ones, at the very bottom of the page. If you need to speak to somebody right now, here are some other places that can help:

Call Samaritans on 116 123 or email
Text SHOUT to 85258 to contact the Shout Crisis Text Line (text YM if you’re under 19)
The Campaign Against Living Miserably, online or 0800 58 58 58.


We live outdoors

Jonn Elledge has just re-shared this excellent piece he wrote in April about lockdown and those of us who live in cities. He argues that it isn’t country folks who live outdoors; it’s city ones.

it’s actually the urban residents who live their lives outside, for the obvious reason that their homes are so small they don’t have a choice. If you live in a major city, you are less likely to have a garden, or a spare room, or even – in the age of landlords taking the piss because, hey, who’s going to stop them? – a living room. Finding space to work that isn’t also the space you sleep in means going to a café; space to socialise means going to the pub. If you want to chill out and enjoy the sunshine, you go to a park. What else can you do?

As he writes, the city is a trade-off: we have a smaller, more expensive home because of the things that surround us and our proximity to things such as our workplaces and social spaces. And that’s great, until those things get locked down.

this trade-off always seemed like a good one to me – right up until the point three weeks ago when the government announced that all bars, restaurants, galleries and so on were to close, and the entire country was in lockdown for the foreseeable future. At which point I was suddenly just living in a small, expensive space very close to other people, with all the advantages to doing so taken away from me, and without even a balcony to hang out on.

I have a balcony, but otherwise I’m in the same boat: I’m paying a lot of money to live close to things that aren’t open.

This isn’t a complaint. Many people have it much, much worse than me: I don’t have to cram an entire family into a tiny flat; my kids are still at school so I can work. But there’s no doubt that the experience of COVID restrictions is very different for city dwellers than it is for suburbanites or our more affluent neighbours (and for those who are partnered rather than those who live alone).

It also raises interesting questions about the future of cities. If working from home becomes the new normal, if our social spaces die from lack of support, if our cultural centres close and events are unviable, if COVID accelerates the shift from bricks and mortar retail to online, what are cities actually for?

Health Hell in a handcart LGBTQ+

Lockdown and mental health

Like many people I’ve been struggling this year. Lockdown and COVID restrictions have been hellish for many people’s mental health.

The promise of lockdown was that it was a necessary evil: we did it to save the NHS and to buy time to create an effective contact tracing system. That time was squandered, and England is about to go into lockdown again.

This, by Owen Jones for The Guardian, is very good.

This is purgatory, a barren parody of real life. We’re living in monochrome, an existence bedevilled by tedium, stripped of spontaneity, robbed of little joys but defined by ever greater stresses. This relentless assault on our wellbeing will only intensify: those left fearing for their imperilled jobs in a nation with a shredded safety net in place of a welfare state; the young being deprived of their best days; the old, denied the dignity and support they deserve in their later years; the millions who were already struggling with their mental health even before the old world collapsed; those imprisoned with domestic abusers, or LGBTQ people locked away with bigoted relatives.

This is a conversation we need to have. As things stand, talk of the mental impact of the world’s greatest crisis for three quarters of a century has been monopolised by corona deniers and anti-lockdown agitators.

Being sad and lonely is clearly lesser than being dead, or causing the deaths of other people. But nevertheless the damage to people’s mental health is much more important and will cause much more misery than the damage to corporations’ profits. To date the UK government has been much more concerned with the latter.

the deprivation of our liberty was not supposed to be an endless cycle of outbreaks and national lockdowns; it was to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed so it could continue to function, to stop needless deaths and to buy time to establish a functioning test and trace system. Its failure means our mental wellbeing has been needlessly tossed on a bonfire – not because of partying youngsters but because of a government that relied on shambolic private contractors and sought to put the economy ahead of human life, with terrible consequences for both.

I’ve written before that while our COVID death toll is already in the tens of thousands, others are in the low single digits: Vietnam, which has a long land border with and extensive travel to and from China, has had just 35 deaths. Vietnam took COVID seriously. Here, we bribed people to go to Wetherspoons.


Tiers and clowns

I live in Glasgow, which is currently in Level 3 coronavirus restrictions. I don’t think we’re likely to move to level 0, near-normality, this side of Spring. And that’s me being optimistic.

Until then, we have to live under restrictions. And those restrictions often seem contradictory or based on very dubious assumptions. I’m going to talk specifically about Scotland here, because the English approach is a horror story.

One of the most important restrictions is on socialising. Until the virus is effectively eradicated and Glasgow moves into Level 0, I can’t have anybody in my home unless they’re a tradesperson there to do work.

I live mostly alone (my children stay with me half the time) in a flat with a large, open plan, well-ventilated living area. I can’t invite one of my friends into my home to sit three metres away from me, but I can meet six people in a café and sit around a small table with them for a long period of time. That café may have another two dozen people in it, or it may be roughly the same size as and no better ventilated than my bathroom.

I can’t invite one of my friends into my home, but I can go to church with up to 50 other people. I might even sing some hymns, because while communal singing is advised against – singing is a significant disease transmission vector – it is not prohibited.

I can’t invite one of my friends into my home but I can go to a wedding reception or a wake with 20 other people.

So I can’t meet one person in a safe and extremely low risk way, but I can meet more people in a much higher risk environment amid many other people.

There are other restrictions too. When I pick up and drop off my children I must wear a face covering in the street outside their school, even though the risk of outdoor transmission by passing near another adult is zero, but I don’t need to wear a face mask in a café full of other people, an indoor environment where we know the transmission risk is particularly high. I can’t travel outside Glasgow, but I can if it’s for work – so I can travel from my high-risk area to have a business meeting in a café with six people in a low-risk area.

I understand the necessity for restrictions. But restrictions need to be evidence-based, consistent and clear. The current restrictions are unclear, inconsistent and ever shifting. I have to go online to check what we are and are not allowed to do because it appears to change every couple of days, so for example the school-mask thing was a late addition to this week’s restrictions.

I’m no fan of the anti-mask, anti-lockdown crowd who demand the freedom to kill your gran, or the clowns I saw on Instagram last night having a riotous gender reveal house party in Clydebank (such parties seem to bring out the idiots; I’ll no doubt come back to that later). These people are modern day Typhoid Marys. But to combat their bullshit, ignorance and sheer selfishness, governments need to persuade everybody else that the restrictions are not only necessary but proportionate; that other people, whether those people are Government advisors or their next door neighbours, are not getting an easier ride than they are.

And that’s not the feeling I’m getting from my social networks. There’s confusion, and anger, and resentment, and in some cases – such as my own – deep, deep despair at the prospect of being banned from seeing the people I care about for yet more months. And when people feel that way about public health messaging their attitude changes: instead of “what do I need to do to keep everyone else safe?”, it becomes “what can I do without getting caught?”

Health LGBTQ+

One potato

Because I live in the central belt of scotland, I’m not going out anywhere right now. The pubs and venues are all closed, so there are no gigs to go to, no open mics to play, no comedy shows to cackle at. I can’t meet my friends in restaurants and I can’t cook for them at home. With a couple of exceptions there are no online things either. All my communication with my friends is via texts or instant messaging and the only people I spend any time with in real life are my children.

One of the results of that is that I don’t pay much attention to what I wear right now. Nobody’s going to shove themselves into underwired bras or clacky heels unless they absolutely have to, and I absolutely don’t have to. If I’m not going out, there’s no reason to bother with make-up or fun clothes; if I didn’t have to go to the shops or pick up the kids I’d probably stay in my dressing gown all day. My AW2020 signature look is “Carrie puts the bins out.”

It’s surprisingly demoralising. I feel like a human potato, or something else similarly ungendered. A disembodied head in a jar, perhaps, or a balloon with a face on it. Something that doesn’t exist in the world but independently of it.

I feel ungendered because gender is partly a performance, a feedback loop where you perform a particular role – such as “man” or “woman” – and people respond to you accordingly, both positively and negatively. So in non-COVID times I inhabit the world as a woman and spend time with people who recognise me as and respond to me as a woman. That’s an important corrective to the ongoing demonisation of people like me, which happens daily in the press and constantly online. In myriad ways it shows you that the narrative in your own head, that the world is a hateful and dangerous place for people like you, is not true.

For most of this year, that corrective has been taken away. The press haven’t stopped and the social media bullies continue to abuse trans people and anyone who supports trans people. If anything, covid has made them worse: they have more time to spend online, and they have become bolder and less concerned about maintaining a veneer of respectability. And the real-life interactions that give the lie to their scaremongering are not happening.

That’s not all. LGBT+ groups have all had to move online, as have the life-affirming Pride events. Healthcare has been reduced to the occasional phone call; no monitoring, no referrals. Safe spaces are shuttered.

I’ve written before that this is a hard road to walk. It’s harder still when you can’t walk it at all.