Critique of the government’s handling of the pandemic shouldn’t be left to conspiracy theorists and extremists

Critique of the government’s handling of the pandemic shouldn’t be left to conspiracy theorists and extremists

COVID-19 hasn’t gone away. No matter how much the government tries or wishes it to be otherwise, the virus is still circulating. In a repeat of Christmas and last Autumn, case numbers are starting to soar. If history repeats itself first as tragedy and second as farce, it’s hard to put words to something when it happens for a fourth time, especially when it was completely avoidable. But this is where we now find ourselves. And at the same time anti-lockdown groups formed by conspiracy theorists and, and aligned with far-right extremists, have also become more inflamed in recent weeks. 

Individuals aligned with these groups have issued threats, with Dee Wall, aka Dolores Webster, declaring that politicians must be dragged from their homes and beaten. Others like Graham Carey have said “We need to wipe the Jews out”. Carey was one of the speakers at an anti-lockdown rally at the Phoenix Park on Thursday 15 July. 

The government’s introduction of a COVID passport in order to pander to the wishes of restaurant and pub lobby has made matters worse. At a similar rally outside the Convention Centre on Wednesday 14 July, as the government was attempting to pass the bill related to the COVID passport, Webster nearly lost control of the crowd as the evening dragged on and nerves frayed.

COVID as a cover

These same people are merely using the COVID-19 pandemic as a cover. They’d be calling for the same things regardless of the pandemic. Only now they can claim they’re responding to the righteous anger already out there. 

Of course this is entirely cynical. Groups like the National Party and Irish Freedom Party (IFP) don’t care about the pandemic as such. For them it’s more important to be seen to be doing something; to pose as an apparent alternative for people who have legitimate concerns about how the government has dealt with the pandemic. Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin have handed the opportunity to the far right and assorted conspiracy theorists on a silver platter. Constant missteps and the undermining of sound medical and scientific advice created a firestorm of anger and uncertainty. 

Into the vacuum poured the National Party, IFP, as well as an assorted group of individuals with their own agendas such as Webster, all of whom overlap with various conspiracy theorists and theories.

Should there be a debate about how the government has handled the pandemic? Absolutely.

On the issue of the COVID passport the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) has highlighted the problems with it. In fact, the organisation was opposed to its introduction in the first place. ICCL director Liam Herrick argued the “legislation will write discrimination based on health status into our laws”. And that the government was attempting to rush it through “without allowing our elected representatives to properly debate it”. The ICCL went on to describe its introduction as also having been done “without any meaningful consideration of equality and data protection concerns”. All of this, as the ICCL rightly points out, for “short-term economic gains”. 

A failure of the left

An argument can be made that the left has to a degree failed to tackle the concerns outlined by the ICCL and others.

These are relatively unprecedented times. It means people are worried and uncertain. And it presents an opportunity for conspiracy theorists and extremists to fill the void created by a lack of left-wing organising around the issue. Groups monitoring the situation warned us about this very problem last year. People should have had their concerns allayed by a mobilised left. 

Instead most of the critique and opposition to these developments has come from the far right and conspiracy theorists. This has been a serious problem throughout the pandemic. And it’s not any better now. Most of the commentary coming from this section of Irish society has been completely inaccurate or disingenuous. It’s ranged from claiming COVID vaccines being part of a worldwide eugenics programme to the Irish government using the pandemic as a pretext to turn the country into a police state.

Clearly these are outlandish claims. But getting hundreds of people to the Convention Centre and Phoenix Park on two consecutive evenings is not something that we can just dismiss. Given the people organising these events and those in attendance, it becomes even more apparent that simply leaving the narrative about the pandemic to these same forces has been a gross misstep on the part of the wider left-wing movement in Ireland. At least Paul Murphy of People Before Profit seems to have recognised this. And groups like Le Chéile have an important role to play in countering the problem. 

At the same time it’s important to separate out those who have genuine concerns about civil liberties from others who believe Jewish people are behind the pandemic or want to deport immigrants from the country. There’s a clear difference between the two. Over 15 months have been gifted to the conspiracy theorists and the far right already. Let’s not gift them another 15.

Featured image via YouTube – Independent.ie

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