Fear kills

The media's deranged fearmongering over Covid-19 has had terrible consequences.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Covid-19 Politics Science & Tech UK

The media in this country have no shame. For two months they’ve been ramping up fear and hysteria over Covid-19. They predicted apocalypse. They reported the daily death tolls like gleeful grim reapers. They said hospitals would be overwhelmed. They interviewed doctor after doctor and nurse after nurse who told us in tearful tones that the health service was at breaking point. They painted a picture of a nation falling apart, of a plague visiting death upon every community, of institutions collapsing under the sheer weight of this mini Black Death.

And now, after all that, after pumping out 24-hour rolling doom for weeks on end, they have the gall to wonder why so many people have been too scared to visit a hospital during the pandemic. And why there has been a huge number of excess deaths from treatable ailments other than Covid-19. And why there was a policy of ‘Protecting the NHS’ at all costs from the coming viral calamity that involved sending even infected elderly people away from hospitals and back to care homes. ‘How could this happen?’, they cry.

To which our response should be: because of you. Because you played a central role in spreading dread and terror about Covid-19 and this encouraged some people, and officialdom itself, to behave in unwise ways.

The shamelessness of the media’s sudden alarm at the consequences of a culture of fear they helped to nurture was clear on Channel 4 News last night. They were reporting on new concerns about ‘collateral damage’ from the Covid crisis, including the fact that far fewer people have been attending A&E, and health services in general, and that this now seems to have caused numerous unnecessary deaths. (This isn’t actually a new concern, of course. spiked reported on it a month ago, in mid-April.)

As part of its report, Channel 4 News interviewed a poorly, 95-year-old woman who said she is too scared to visit a hospital. She said that, ‘like everyone’, she is terrified of coronavirus. The reporter looked startled and concerned. There will have to be a serious analysis at some point in the future as to why even ill people avoided health services during the pandemic, she said.

Let’s not wait until the future. Let’s talk about it now. The media, including you, Channel 4 News, fed us ceaseless horror stories from hospitals, and tales of doom about the wiping out of the elderly, and grim predictions of hundreds of thousands of deaths. So that 95-year-old lady’s reluctance to visit a hospital actually makes sense, even if it could prove potentially bad for her health if she were to take a turn for the worse. For media outlets that stirred up terror about Covid-19 now to say ‘Oh dear, some people are so terrified of Covid-19 that they’re not visiting hospitals’ represents temerity of industrial proportions.

Channel 4 News’ report was based on the revelation of an unprecedented fall in visits to A&E. Last month, visits to A&E fell by 57 per cent, hitting a record low. Meanwhile, the British Medical Journal this week reported that the ‘staggering number’ of deaths in the community over the past two months cannot be explained by Covid alone. ‘Only a third of the excess deaths seen in the community in England and Wales can be explained by Covid-19’, the BMJ says. Care homes and other community settings have had to deal with the ‘staggering burden’ of 30,000 more deaths than would normally occur at this time of the year, but of those, ‘only 10,000 had Covid-19 specified on the death certificate’.

Of course, some of the other 20,000 deaths will have been Covid-related too, but just not recorded as such, for whatever reason. But many of them will have been deaths among people who would otherwise have lived if they had easy, normal access to health services – if, as one expert puts it, ‘they had managed to get to a hospital’. As I wrote on spiked last month, there is widespread concern among health officials and experts that the reorientation of the NHS around tackling Covid-19, and the cancellation of other forms of health treatment, and the relentless, doom-laden message that we must ‘Protect the NHS’ from catastrophe by steering clear of it, is raising the number of deaths from heart attack, stroke, acute appendicitis and other treatable problems among people who believe hospitals have become no-go zones.

Much health treatment is either being suspended or simply spurned by members of the public too fearful to visit a doctor. Some cancer treatments are being put on hold, raising concerns that many new cancers will not be diagnosed in the pandemic. The media are reporting that during lockdown the number of children receiving the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine has fallen by a quarter. A&E chiefs have noted a ‘sharp rise in the number of seriously ill people dying at home’, partly because they are fearful about calling upon the apparently stressed-out, apocalyptic institutions that our hospitals have become since the Covid calamity gripped the nation.

Only, hospitals haven’t become like that. Some are only half-full. Hospitals in Scotland are ‘eerily quiet’, says the Scottish interim chief medical officer, Gregor Smith. That message of ‘Protect the NHS’ has been too successful. The NHS has been well and truly protected – from very ill people who need its services as a matter of life and death.

Everyone who contributed to the climate of hysteria around Covid-19 needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror. It isn’t only the media, of course. Officialdom dealt in dread, too. As government adviser Professor Robert Dingwall says, too many ministers ‘effectively terrorised’ the population into believing coronavirus would kill us. This fear had consequences. Serious ones.

Consider, also, the care-homes crisis. Once again, the media are only now discovering that there was an actual policy of sending sick elderly people, even those who tested positive for coronavirus, away from hospitals and back to care homes. As a result, Covid hit many care homes very hard indeed. This also isn’t new. Fraser Myers reported on it for spiked more than two weeks ago. The care-homes crisis is a product of a top-down fear-fuelled belief that hospitals would be overwhelmed by Covid patients, and of the media’s myopic obsession with shutting down the whole of society, which constantly drew attention away from those who were most at risk: the elderly and the vulnerable.

It is a bit much to have to listen to Piers Morgan shout about the care-homes crisis now, when it was Covid hysterics like him who relentlessly dragged the public gaze away from what should have been the obvious problem of disproportionate elderly affliction in favour of whipping up dread about the population in general and disgust against people sitting on park benches for five minutes. The media cannot now get away with stirring up rage about developments – excess deaths, fear of hospitals, the care-homes crisis – that their initial rage unwittingly contributed to.

Fear kills. That’s the lesson we must take from all of this. Roosevelt was right: we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Apocalypticism makes reasoned thinking more difficult, and sensible, strategic policy more unlikely. When we come out the other side of Covid-19, we need a serious reckoning with the culture of fear before it destroys any more lives.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Covid-19 Politics Science & Tech UK


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