Thou Shalt Not Question Public Health! Censorship in the Age of COVID-19

Anonymous submission to North Shore Counter-Info

Something has been gnawing away at me for months. Why have anarchists been so silent in the face of increasing state repression? Aren’t radical Leftists historically the defenders of civil liberties such as the freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press? Yet until recently, there seemed to be a taboo against criticizing measures justified in the name of Public Health.

Thankfully, that is now changing. In Quebec, home to a fierce anarchist tradition, it took the imposition of a curfew before anarchists reached the point of mobilizing, but I am happy to report that radical Leftists in Quebec are now taking to the streets. Today, on Saturday, January 16th, 2021, the first anti-curfew demonstration will take place in the neighbourhood of Hochelaga.

This is an encouraging sign, and I hope that it will lead to further dialogue about what the best way for the Left to respond to the new challenges of organizing a resistance movement in the age of COVID. I, for one, am hoping that to see more critical analysis emerge, as I think that we, as a movement, need to orient ourselves to the new political landscape.

It has been a dizzying whirlwind of a year. It’s hard to know what to think these days. Personally, I find myself questioning whether the political analysis that I had pre-pandemic is still relevant in a post-COVID world. In which ways do I need to adapt my perspective to keep up with the changing times? Has the world fundamentally changed?

I think that a good place to start is with the subject of censorship. The libertarian left, the broader tradition of which anarchism is a part, has historically been opposed to censorship. Nowadays, however, the Left seems to be silent on this subject. To be fair, it is complicated subject in the age of fake news, conspiracy theories, and Cambridge Analytica. So I raise the issue is earnest, as a subject that is deserving of discussion and debate. I think that we need to seriously engage with this question, as we are undoubtedly living in an age of increasing censorship.

Let me begin with an example.

Today, Ontario MPP Roman Baber published a letter calling for an end to Ontario’s lockdown. In it, Baber makes the case that the health consequences of the lockdown, such as increased overdoses, suicidal ideation, and anxiety disorders, outweigh the harm of COVID-19. Basically, he is making a very tame argument that the lockdown is not in the public interest. His position is that “Covid is real, but the fear of Covid is exaggerated. While every death is tragic, after 10 months we learned that Covid is not nearly as deadly as first thought.” He supports his argument by citing recent statistics from the CDC about the fatality rates for COVID-infected people in different age groups. The letter can be read here.

Doug Ford’s response was swift. Baber was ejected from caucus and it was announced that he would be barred from running for the Conservative party ever again. The reason that I am writing this piece is because I think that it is revealing about the current state of propaganda in Canada.

Ford’s statement is typical: “By spreading misinformation he is undermining the tireless efforts of our frontline health-care workers at this critical time, and he is putting people at risk,” he said. “I will not jeopardize a single Ontarian’s life by ignoring public health advice… There is no room for political ideology in our fight against COVID-19 — rather, our response has been and will always be driven by evidence and data.”

Some people may be tempted to write off such a statement as the meaningless nonsense that politicians often spew, but I think that it is a good illustration of an emerging acceptance of an increasingly common attitude; that dissent is dangerous, puts lives at risk, and must be suppressed in the name of the public interest.

Let’s unpack Ford’s statement. First off, support for a lockdown is as much of an expression of political ideology as is opposition to a lockdown. Clearly, this is an absurd statement, but it seems to imply that that opposition to the ideology of the state will not be permitted. In fact, if I might interpret this statement, I would suggest that Ford’s statement makes more sense when one replaces the word “dissent” for “political ideology”. With that substitution, the sentence would read: There is no room for dissent in our fight against COVID-19. Is that what he actually means?

Secondly, which misinformation? The sources that Baber cited were sources the mainstream media usually would consider credible. Ford did not specify, although the government soon released a “fact-sheet” disputing Baber’s claims, which absurdly points out a typo. You can find the government’s response here.

Tellingly, that the CBC article includes a link to Ford’s response to Baber’s letter, but not to the letter itself. One is left to imagine that the CBC deemed that the “misinformation” was too dangerous to spread.

The CBC article is well worth reading, as it typifies the insipid state of journalism in 2021. After stating that Ontario to had announced 100 deaths this morning, the reporter goes on to say:

“The further deaths are the most recorded on a single-day since the pandemic began, though the Ministry of Health said that 46 occurred “earlier in the pandemic” and were included today due to a “data cleaning initiative” by the Middlesex-London Health Unit, but offered no further details.”

Will the CBC publish a follow-up story explaining this statistical anomaly? Somehow, I doubt it. The irony is, of course, is that the government’s attempt to debunk its critic disputes the validity of cited statistics whilst using data which appears to be falsified.

So what misinformation is Ford referring to? The statistics of the CDC? And more importantly: Who gets to decide what is and what isn’t misinformation? This question has become extremely important in the past year, as social media platforms have implemented extensive censorship policies. It is becoming more unlikely that your average person will encounter perspectives critical of the official narrative around COVID-19.

This problem is compounded by the fact that the Canadian media landscape has become increasingly dependent upon federal funds. Essentially, with declining newspaper readership and cable TV viewership, the business model of major media companies in Canada has become increasing dependent on state subsidies. You may have noticed how it is increasingly uncommon for mainstream media to be critical of the government, and how all major news outlets in Canada seem to have similar editorial policies. I would argue that this phenomenon is easily explained by simple fact that editors know who’s buttering their bread, and are loath to risk the ire of those controlling the funds they depend on for their livelihoods.

It bears keeping in mind that there are fewer journalists working today than there have been at any point in the last 20 years. The job of reporter is often a precarious one in 2021. And in the current political climate, there can be severe consequences to voicing unpopular opinions. My point is that I suspect that reporters are self-censoring. Their job is to write things that their bosses will publish. If they know that a given story stands no chance of being published, how likely are they to write it? I believe that we are witnessing a narrowing-down of what it is acceptable to say, and that we, as anarchists, must re-assert our fundamental opposition to state control over our lives.

It should be pointed out that social media platforms are scrubbing their platforms of information deemed to be contrary to the recommendations of Public Health. This type of censorship works to create a type of groupthink by making criticism of the lockdown seem like an extremist ideology, by placing it outside the bounds of what it is acceptable to say. Liberals have largely toed the party line. But we are not liberals.

I think that we need to ask ourselves? What is Public Health? Who is Public Health? What is justifiable in the name of Public Health and what isn’t? I also think that we need to develop an analysis of the term “Public Health” itself, as it gained new meaning and new importance in the past year. What is really implied by the term “Public Health”? Often, it seems that the term is used to suggest that individual wishes, needs and desires must be subordinated in the interests of a greater good. Who determines this greater good? Certainly not you or I! “Public Health” is determined by authorities vested with their role by the state. So the state determines the Public Interest. I think that what is taking place is that. “Public Health” is becoming an extremely important term in the lexicon of propaganda, and I think that we should be critical of the way that the term is being used.

Here is my perspective on “Public Health”. I believe that this term is coming to represent the concept of “Safety” or “Security”.

I believe that human beings want to be free. However,I feel that there is one thing that most people value over freedom. That is safety. If a drug cartel threatened your life or the lives of your family if you didn’t start working for the cartel, it is extremely likely that you would choose safety over freedom. Millions upon millions of people choose safety over freedom every single day. That is why, when a regime wishes to gain the compliance of a population for nefarious purposes, such as war, they focus on making people afraid. This is basic. If there is one thing that people will sacrifice their freedom for, it is safety, and propagandists have known this for centuries.

As Nazi propagandist Hermann Goering famously put it:

“[T]he people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

Isn’t this very analogous to what is happening now? Everyday, we are told over and over again how dire the situation is. We are essentially being told that we are under attack. The only difference is that the enemy is not a foreign power but a force of nature, a virus. For a time, Trump even called COVID the “invisible enemy”.

In the place of pacifists, there are civil libertarians, those who refuse to accept the logic of Public Health. These people, often characterized as “anti-maskers” or “anti-vaxxers”, are the targets of scorn and ridicule, and by now their voices are mostly absent from mainstream political discourse. They are denounced for exposing vulnerable people to danger, and the danger of their ideas is used to justify censorship. And the scorn that they are subjected to sends a message to those who might be tempted to speak up against the normalization of arbitrary measures – it’s not worth the effort.

I think that we need to reject the logic that we need to be protected from ourselves. To accept this logic is to accept defeat. If we accept the logic that the information that we have access to must be controlled, we are accepting the logic that we must be controlled. The state would have us believe that it has our best interests at heart, and that it is manipulating us for our own good, in the name of Public Health. I ain’t buying it.

Stay Strong. Stay Safe. Smash the State.

4 thoughts on “Thou Shalt Not Question Public Health! Censorship in the Age of COVID-19”

  1. I find this article so interesting, as I have only yet encountered these sentiments coming from QAnon folks and the far-right. Yet, I find I am in agreement with some of this. I am very curious what other anarchists think about this article, and how to proceed.

    1. Thank you for the positive feedback! I’m the author of this piece. I wrote basically to kickstart some discussion and debate around the subject of lock-down, because, as the piece states, there seems to be very little discussion on the left about these measures. By and large, liberals have accepted the logic that measures such as lock-downs, curfews, and police checkpoints are justified in the name of the greater good, i.e. public health. I can understand how that was the response early on in the pandemic, as no one knew how deadly this virus was. However, it’s now been almost a year, we have more data, and a lot of research has come out about the ineffectiveness of lock-downs, and yet still liberals have the default position of complying with the recommendations of public health authorities, and anarchist discourse has largely refrained from separating itself from the liberal discourse. I haven’t closely followed the anti-mask/anti-lock-down movement, nor have I been to any of their demos, so I can’t comment as to what their politics are, but when I see tens of thousands of people taking to the street (this happened in Quebec), I assume a heterogenuous mix of political ideologies. I know from talking to people that a lot of people are fed up, that they feel that there is no end in sight, and I am concerned that if there isn’t an anarchist/anti-capitalist/leftist response to this, then a wave of populism fuelled by right-wing conspiracy theories and paranoia will come into being, as we have seen stateside. But there is so little discussion about what does and doesn’t make sense, I wanted to start a discussion, and I have had many interesting conversations as a result. I’ll leave you with the words of a comrade who has been educating me on the science of COVID:

      On the issue of the virus being endemic, one thing I like to show people is this study:

      Basically, 109 blood samples that the American Red Cross had received as donations, from the period between December 13th and January 17th showed an antibody response to SARS 2. The 30 something samples from CA, WA, and OR, were the earliest collected.

      There is a good likelihood that SARS 2 was in the US in November of 2019, if not even earlier than that. We don’t know to look for what we don’t know exists.

      The virus also was in the UK in this timeframe based on the first UK covid death in January and his hospitalization in December. It was confirmed in France in December, and it was confirmed in Italy in November. The more people look, the more evidence we will find of global spread in the fall of 2019.

      I mention this to drive home the point that eliminating the virus was probably never an option. Trying to drive cases to zero with lockdowns was probably never going to work, because it was too widely spread already. According to the CDC:

      “the effectiveness of pandemic mitigation strategies will erode rapidly as the cumulative illness rate prior to implementation climbs above 1 percent of the population in an affected area.’”

      So I just think the notion that this can be gotten around, or that it could have somehow been prevented, is not true. We live on Earth, viruses are a part of the landscape, and they mutate and evolve without our permission or knowledge. We do our best to keep tabs on the deadliest among them, but they always have a head start. Certainly, some island nations can, with early warning, close their borders, which places like Antigua and New Zealand have done. But to broadly restrict human movement and freedom in most places will not have the desired effect, but will come with heavy and multi variant costs.

  2. People need to find ways to oppose repressive state measures while still showing a spirit of care and collectivity that, for me, is as synonymous with anarchism as is freedom. Done autonomously, social distancing, mask-wearing and increased hygiene measures can be a way of showing care for ourselves, each other and the larger communities that we are a part of. The virus is a real threat and these are real ways to keep ourselves and each other safe. That doesn’t mean we have to accept state intervention into our personal lives through legislated limits on gatherings, curfews, etc. We should fight those things. I personally do not care if they want to close businesses, got no love for commerce anyway, so really don’t have a horse in that particular race. I do not accept this new version of the state, but I also do not think that being asked to do things for others *by people we are close to or by members of our community* is the same as being forced to do those things by the state. If someone is asking you to limit your social interactions for our collective health, that is a thing to take seriously and respond to compassionately and with a spirit of compromise. It’s not limiting your “freedom” to ask you to do that, and you’re not limiting your own “freedom” if you comply, at least not in any meaningful or negative way. If the state has imposed a curfew, fuck that, and we should fight it in all the ways we know how. I think we’re smart enough to do that while still giving a fuck about keeping each other safe though.

    1. Big yes to this. That’s the big difference between an autonomous, ethical response and the denialists. People end up opposing the lockdown for many reasons.

      The most popular one is to defend the business class. This article makes heavy use of a letter by a random MPP who mobilizes mental health claims to argue for business interests over health interests. It’s not interesting. The issue of censorship is a bit interesting, since there are always views that are considered too opposed to the public good to be aired, it’s important to track when they change. The more interesting aspect to me though is how this is enforced informally, between friends or comrades, which has more to do with why anarchists haven’t engaged with repressive health measures so far than what the state happens to be doing.

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