In defence of Karol Sikora

The witch-hunting of Sikora is a new low for the dogmatists of the lockdown cult.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
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Topics Free Speech Politics Science & Tech UK

It isn’t only Covid-19 that is mutating. So is cancel culture. This nasty strain of censorship is spreading, intensifying, becoming ever-more poisonous and harmful to the body politic. The more coronavirus spreads, the more the virus of cancellation spreads too, with packs of censors and neo-Stalinists now demanding the silencing and punishment of anybody who deviates even slightly from the consensus on Covid-19. Just consider the current efforts to destroy the reputation of Karol Sikora.

Professor Sikora is the cancer expert who has been questioning the Covid consensus for the past few months. He has queried the need for harsh lockdowns and kicked up a necessary fuss over the NHS’s suspension of various forms of medical treatment, including for cancer. In the fog of fear about Covid-19, Sikora has shone a light of hope. We’ll get through it, he says. Don’t live in dread, he counsels. Let normal life, and normal medical treatment, continue as much as possible, he’s advised. Has he always been right? Of course not. Show me the man who has. He suggested there wouldn’t be a second wave. In May he said that, come August, things will be ‘virtually back to normal’. That was wrong. String him up! Get out your rotten tomatoes. Pelt this speechcriminal who made a prediction that was not correct.

For the supposed crime of not being entirely right about the course coronavirus would take, Professor Sikora is now public enemy No1 in the eyes of the lockdown fanatics. Leading the mob, as is so often the case these days, is Guardian columnist Owen Jones. From the very start of the Covid crisis, Mr Jones, like many other privileged millennial leftists, has relished the authoritarianism of the lockdown. In March he expressed delight at being ‘placed under house arrest along with millions of people under a police state by a right-wing Tory government’. Yes, if you are well-off, middle class, capable of working from home and cancer-free, lockdown was probably a riot. For other people, however, it wasn’t. Professor Sikora’s chief sin was to express this truth – to say that lockdown will exact a wicked toll on many people – and now privileged beneficiaries of lockdown like Mr Jones are out to destroy him for it.

Jones’ complaint about Sikora is that he has been wrong about some things and he has criticised the policy of lockdown. He takes aim at Sikora’s proposal that instead of locking down the entire population, we should pursue shielding measures for certain sections of the population – ‘the old and vulnerable’. He mocks Sikora for being too chirpy. ‘The Positive Professor.’ Optimism is a crime in the land of the misanthropes. But most notably, letting slip his illiberal tendencies, Jones doesn’t merely criticise Sikora – that would be fine; everyone must have the right to criticise everybody else. No, he also suggests that Sikora should be denied the oxygen of publicity. The media outlets who give Sikora a platform should be ashamed of themselves, he says. They are ‘helping to spread disinformation’ and that is dangerous during a pandemic.

In short, dissent kills. Criticism of consensus is not only wrong, it is potentially lethal – it threatens to pollute men’s souls and encourage people to take reckless risks that could literally sicken them. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it has been the cry of every censor in history, from Torquemada to Joe McCarthy to the blue-haired posh kids running riot on campuses in the Anglosphere right now – ‘words are not only wrong sometimes, they are also dangerous and murderous’, all these people have crowed. Now the same is being said about Sikora and other dissenters from the lockdown consensus. Jones’ column is a new low, even for him. It is a shrill, vindictive and transparent effort to achieve the expulsion from media life of a man who has dared to say we need more balance in our approach to Covid-19.

Jones is not alone in the war on Sikora. The right-wing authoritarian Sam Bowman has branded Sikora and other sceptics, including Sunetra Gupta, a professor of epidemiology at Oxford University who supports the Great Barrington Declaration, as ‘cranks’. Bowman, senior fellow at the Adam Smith Institute, detests these people’s suggestion that we should try to shield vulnerable people in the name of preserving liberty. He is far more keen on China’s approach to Covid, which, let’s not forget, involved literally locking people in their homes and silencing sceptical doctors. Who predicted that in 2020 the ASI would shill for Chinese communist dictatorship? Elsewhere, Sikora has been censured by YouTube and is regularly subjected to insults and accusations that he is killing people.

We are now in full-on witch-hunt territory. Sikora, Gupta, Carl Heneghan, also of Oxford, and others are now routinely demonised. They must be silenced, the illiberal fanatics cry. The witch-hunters have helped to unleash hysterical abuse against sceptics. Gupta says she regularly receives emails calling her evil and dangerous. She has even wondered: ‘Would I have been treated like this if I were a white man?’ Of course, identitarians who normally stand up for women from ethnic minorities who are being trolled and harassed have nothing whatsoever to say about the war of words against Gupta, because to them she is scum. Well, she’s critical of the lockdown, so she must be, right?

This is the chilling climate that the lockdown dogmatists have helped to create: one in which it is now tantamount to a speechcrime to raise a peep of criticism of the strategy of lockdown. Big Tech will censure you, mobs will hound you, neo-Stalinists will demand that you be added to a blacklist – for make no mistake, that is what the likes of Jones are essentially calling for when they suggest Sikora and others should not be ‘platformed’. A climate of McCarthyite vengeance is whooshing around the Covid crisis, making the lockdown even more authoritarian than it already was – now it isn’t only our daily lives that are being locked down; so are our minds and our thoughts.

There are two things to say about this. The first is simply to marvel at the gall of commentators who brand a celebrated oncologist like Sikora as ‘dangerous’. Sikora has been wrong during the lockdown – so has everybody – but it seems unquestionable to me that he did far more good in 2020 than his commentariat critics did. He kept the pressure on the NHS to go back to treating things other than Covid. He constantly drew attention to the looming cancer crisis. He offered cancer sufferers advice. And he cut through the misanthropic doom of the lockdown cult by saying we will get through this crisis one day. His voice has been far more refreshing, and fundamentally honest, than the 24-hour rolling-news of horror and hysterical fearmongering that has intensified people’s sense of despair and atomisation.

And secondly, even more importantly, there’s the small matter of freedom of speech. Of freedom of conscience. These things don’t become less important when society faces a significant challenge like Covid-19 – they become more important. Dissent is always good; but in an era of unprecedented authoritarianism it becomes essential. When officialdom assumes control over every aspect of our lives – our social lives, our family lives, whether we can go to work, even whether we can leave the house – then it is absolutely right to question things, constantly, unflinchingly. No one should ever feel comfortable with the suspension of freedom. They should be talking about it and challenging it every hour of every day. Whether their challenges are ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ is not the most important thing here – the most important thing is that we maintain a culture of criticism in response to the most extraordinary climate of authoritarianism any of us has ever experienced.

Dogma is the enemy of progress. Dissent – however irritating the police, the government and the Guardian might find it – is the guarantor of progress. It is the means through which all of us, including society more broadly, entertain the possibility that we are wrong. That lockdown is a mistake, that giving teenagers puberty-blockers is an error, that the Earth is not in fact at the centre of the solar system. Dogma protects even immoral policies and incorrect thinking from criticism by demonising dissenters; dissent, on the other hand, helps to shine a light on the wrongness of certain political strategies or ideological beliefs by encouraging criticism and scrutiny. Even where dissenters are wrong, factually, the climate they help to create is of enormous benefit to society and to mankind.

We must defend freedom of speech in this crisis. Our lives are locked down – and many people accept that as a temporary measure – but our minds should never be locked down. Free thought and free speech are the great guards – our only guards, in fact – against the ossification of public debate and the creation of new, potentially damaging orthodoxies and policies. If we allow free thinking to die alongside the economy, millions of people’s jobs and those cancer patients who were neglected for months on end, then society will be the poorer for a very, very long time. So carry on, Positive Professor. Dissent is now the duty of every individual who wants to ensure that freedom is still breathing when this cursed lockdown is lifted.

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.

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