The Covid Witch-Hunts

7 August 2021

by Dr Sinéad Murphy

In the Republic of Ireland as of July 26th, only those who have accepted two jabs are allowed to go inside the pub – that den of such life and good cheer that there is an Irish Pub to be found in the remotest corners of the globe.

On va à l’Irish? a French friend of mine used to say to his college mates, when they had a free afternoon in Poitiers.

Can this really be happening? Can the people of my native land really be refusing entry at pub doors to friends and neighbours who have not agreed to receive a particular medical treatment? I’ve been gone for over a decade – have things really changed that much?

What of the good-humoured scepticism that used to mitigate every piece of Irish officialdom? I know someone who lost his Irish passport while living and working illegally in the U.S., and who managed to have it replaced via a network of ex-patriots in the police and the passport office there. Years ago, I was stopped by the Gardai for exceeding the speed limit on a stretch of road approaching Cork city – “You were travelling quickly there, do you know that?” asked the garda. “God, I’m sorry,” I said. “Watch yourself next time, girl,” he said. That was it.

And what of the courage that used to lie beneath these soft to-and-fros of Irish life? As a baby, my grandmother had a gun held to her head by the Black and Tans, while they questioned her mother on the whereabouts of a local insurgent – she didn’t give them an answer, and her older daughter was later imprisoned in the Curragh for running messages between dissidents. When I was young, I saw a man whose fingertips had been cut off by the English. And on the walls of the Alamo, I read the names of tens of Irish who fought to free Texas as they have fought for versions of freedom in battles all over the world – the brother of my grandmother who survived the Black and Tans joined forces with the British Army in the Second World War.

The two have gone hand-in-hand – the courage and the craic, the friendliness and the fight. A verve for life and for people and for talk will tend to draw a person into whatever news is abroad and whatever struggle is afoot.

But now they’ve disappeared hand-in-hand, it looks like. Irish men and women sit well apart from other Irish men and women because their Government has ruled that they must or because they’re afraid of getting sick, or both.

The words of W.B. Yeats resound in my despondency: “Was it for this the wild geese spread? For this that all the blood was shed?”

* * *

On the day after the ban from entering pubs came into effect, Fintan O’Toole published an article in the Irish Times – “Shocking News: Irish People May Be Sanest In Europe” was the headline.

Heartened by what he identified as the dearth of Irish “loopers”, O’Toole commended his people for their high level of acceptance of the need for vaccination against Covid, the highest level of acceptance in the whole of Europe it seems.

This acquiescence is good in itself, O’Toole argued, because it is leading to a high take-up of injections against Covid in the Irish population.

But it is also good for what it indicates, O’Toole continued, which is, he claimed, a fittingness for democracy. Since “anti-vax sentiment” is, in his view, a symptom of susceptibility to “misinformation”, “conspiracy theories”, “paranoia” and “rampant individual egoism”, it is, he said, “a kind of biological marker for dangers to democracy”.

The Irish have belied their reputation for “wildness”, O’Toole crowed, and are ripe at last with “rationality” and “logic”.

O’Toole’s article is revealing. On the day following the implementation of an unprecedented Government mandate for discrimination against a cohort of the population on the grounds that such discrimination is necessary for the protection of the life and health of the general population, O’Toole chose to celebrate, not the new and improved sanitation of Irish public houses but the new and improved sanity of the Irish public.

It is the retreat of dissent that O’Toole is so impressed by in the acquiescence of the Irish to the new restrictions, and not the retreat of disease.

The two are connected, of course, in O’Toole’s view at least; his claim that vaccine apartheid is a triumph of reason is at least partly justified by its declared promise of a triumph over disease.

Yet O’Toole’s rejoicing at the new “sanity” of the Irish is still somewhat ambivalent. Has the project of stopping a new disease become for him of secondary importance to the project of instating a new rationality, of which willingness to be injected against the virus is demoted to the status of mere symptom? Has the collective effort to immunise against Covid become little more a “marker” for immunisation against “wildness” in all its forms?

O’Toole’s article participates in an old and profound obfuscation, in which disease of the body is juxtaposed and exchanged with disease of the mind to such an extent that it is difficult to discern their distinction or to defend against their respective imputation.

The upshot is that a population’s acceptance of a policy of exclusion of unclean bodies is touted by one of its eminent journalists as a victory over unstable minds, over “loopery” in all its forms. 

* * *

There is real danger in this obfuscation of diseased bodies and diseased minds. By a constant slipping between allegations of uncleanliness and accusations of unreason, the fact that there may be no good grounds for either grows ever less evident or relevant.

During this past year and a half, debates about the virus and the vaccines – debates about disease – have been obscured by concern about the spread of disinformation – concern about dissent; and assertions of the right to freedom of speech – assertions about dissent – have been derailed by tearful accounts of the sad death of somebody’s granny – accounts of disease.

And as each side of the Covid coin has given support to the other – as accusations of unreason have somehow buttressed the alleged requirement that we keep our bodies clean and as descriptions of physical symptoms have somehow bolstered the alleged requirement that we keep our minds clear – the whole set-up has inflated itself to float on thin air.

There are now ample grounds for doubt over the efficacy and safety of the Covid vaccines: the manufacturers themselves acknowledge that they may not prevent infection and transmission; recent data from Public Health Scotland suggests they may not be as effective against hospitalisation and death as first thought; and the number of adverse reactions being reported exceeds that of any other vaccines.

Which means that there are even more ample grounds for doubt about the point of the vaccine apartheid being implemented by the Irish. 

Yet there is widespread indifference to these doubts, among both governments and their populations. Why? Is it as O’Toole exemplifies – is the fact of being willing to submit yourself, even to endanger yourself, allegedly for the greater good, now more important in the roll-out of the Covid injections than whether or not the injections actually produce a positive health outcome?

Is it a certain attitude of mind that is at stake in the Covid vaccination campaign, with the efficacy of the vaccines becoming less important? Is getting vaccinated significant not in itself but as a “biological marker” for the triumph of “rationality” over “loopery”?

Recoil from disease is a powerful impulse. We have seen just how powerful during the Covid crisis, in the alacrity with which habits of retreat from other bodies were acquired in the early months of 2020.

But when the distinction between sick bodies and sick minds begins to blur, this recoil is stimulated not only by disease but by dissent too, as if ideas can be as contagious and corrupting as illnesses. What results is visceral rejection of kinds of information and modes of expression, a wholly illogical reaction although it is brought to bear in the service of “logic” and “rationality”.

The confusion of disease and dissent is the most corrupting thing of all, giving rise to unreflective recoil from facts and ideas that ought, in an enlightened society, to be tolerated, considered, maybe even accepted.

* * *

In her book Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici outlines a powerful example of the confusion of disease and dissent, which ought to stir us to resist the corrupting effects of its Covid counterpart.

Federici describes the witch-hunts that took place in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. These persecutions, in which hundreds of thousands of women were tortured and killed, have an apocryphal significance in our culture. But when they are examined in their historical detail, parallels abound with current government policies concerning the unvaccinated – in particular, the confusion of poisonous bodies with poisonous minds, of infection with deception.

The witch, at first, was a wholly bodied phenomenon; her defining characteristics were physical. She was an old woman, widowed or single, with no children or dead children, thin from wandering, worn from the world. She was often sick, from age if nothing else. Accustomed to living off the hospitality of people in exchange for work or medical experience or knowledge of ritual, she was frequently a stranger in the village, making her an easy target for early rumbles of suspicion that she was unclean and a carrier of disease.

But gradually this prejudice against old and wandering women began to deepen, though it remained within the realm of bodily danger. Childless herself, the witch began to be seen as a spreader of infertility; survivor of husband and child, she became feared as a castrator of husbands and a murderer of children; wise about the medicinal qualities of plants, she came to be identified as a poisoner; accustomed to gleaning from the common lands and hospitality of people, she began to be suspected of poaching and stealing; practiced in the arts of festival, she came to be reviled as debauched and a spreader of debauchery.

Then the prejudice grew deeper still, as stories of witches began to discern and to deplore general principles of witchery in all their alleged unreason: childlessness itself became a matter of shame and suspicion, the stillbirth of a baby, an event to be hidden; adultery and promiscuity of all kinds became anathema; traditional medicinal practices, subsistence from common resources, and wandering from place to place all came gradually to be considered as kinds of lunacy.

At last, early recoil from the ailing bodies of old women came to rest as a widespread and entrenched revulsion against certain ideas, designated as irrational, ‘wild’. Until there emerged the terrifying prospect of the ‘asymptomatic’ witch – a beautiful young woman, perhaps, with her whole life ahead and her choices yet to be made, but over whom a shadow begins to fall on account of her suspected incubation of certain attitudes and propensities.

The witch-hunts of Europe were characterised by a slow but sure creep, from revulsion at the decrepit bodies of old women to revulsion at their ways of living and finally to revulsion at a set of ideas about how to live. At the height of the witch-hunts, what had begun as prejudice against a loosely delineated alleged bodily corruption had become a bloody war against alleged moral and intellectual disease.

Through it all the body of the witch was still there, to be described and depicted in disgusting detail and depraved aspects, so that visceral recoil against witchery in all its alleged forms retained its hold upon populations and became confirmed as beyond the pale. 

Though early recoil at disease had become horror at “wildness” and “loopery”, the physical characteristics of the witch that had kick-started the whole affair stayed abroad as “biological markers” of a whole new kind of unreason.

The wicked witch is still a stock character in our culture. But have we paused to consider what her wickedness is founded upon? Mostly, it is the physical attributes of the witch that are salient in our stories and our pantomimes – she is old and ugly, with warts on her face and hair on her chin; she speaks with a croaky voice and walks with a stoop. It is not clear why any of these physical attributes add up to wickedness; indeed, the suggestion that they do constitutes a piece of terrible prejudice against age and decrepitude.

Yet our storybooks and Halloween performances are filled with this gentle obfuscation: of the witch’s corrupted body and the witch’s corrupted soul, of physical decline and moral degeneracy, of disease and dissent. 

* * *

During the years before Covid, a general acceptance of the defining principle of the witch-hunts was quietly reseeded – it was confirmed once again that certain kinds of thinking and talking could be as corrupting as kinds of disease. The possibility was disseminated that facts and ideas could transmit like a virus – could ‘go viral.’ Information could ‘spread’ like a pathogen and opinions could be ‘toxic’. 

For this reason, by the time the SARS-CoV-2 virus arrived we were already reattuned to a witch-hunt mentality, to the notion that talk can be infectious, that ideas can be contagious, that disease can be abroad as a moral and intellectual threat as well as a biological one.

And now, in the move to discriminate against those who remain unvaccinated against Covid, are we seeing the culmination of this witch-hunt mentality? Is there another slow, sure creep from the concerted effort to suppress a new disease to a concerted effort to suppress a new unreason? Certainly, the parallels abound.

As with the witch-hunts, the beginning phases of Covid were devoted solely to the identification and mitigation of a physical contagion: anyone with a persistent cough was advertised as a potentially lethal threat and urged to get tested for a new disease, with images of the yellowish inside of a Covid patient’s lungs helping to instill the habit of keeping our distance from the infected.

Then, as with the witch-hunts, the grounds for keeping our distance were extended. Loss of taste and smell, unexplained blisters on toes, a high body temperature, and several other symptoms were added with more or less certainty to the list of signs of contagion. And certain behaviours began to be identified as dangerous – the handshake, the hug, paying with cash, showing your face… all began to partake of the suspicion initially aroused in respect of the persistent cough.

Then a kind of contagion started to be attributed, not to physical symptoms or behaviours, but to words and ideas, as criticism of lockdowns became the ‘toxic’ strategy of ‘let it rip’, and questioning the safety of experimental vaccines became ‘anti-vax’ ‘poison’, and investigations into the origins and nature of the SARS-CoV-2 virus became ‘dangerous’ ‘disinformation’.

Until, as in the witch-hunts, it became possible to vilify the ‘asymptomatic’ spreader, who might or might not be a carrier of disease and might or might not be a fomenter of dissent, who might be sick or might be insane.

At last, it became as important to profess conviction in the need for relinquishing personal freedoms for the sake of public safety – to wear a mask, to take a jab, and to talk the talk of the experts – as it was to test negative for the presence of a fragment of virus.

Concern at the spread of infection had become muddled with panic at the spread of deception, and policies aimed at promoting sanitation slid into policies aimed at promoting sanity, and people shied away from the talk and the thoughts of their fellows as nervously as they pulled back from their touch.

Now, in Ireland at least, a Covid witch-hunt is well underway: anyone without official confirmation that they have submitted their individual autonomy to the greater good of the populace, as described to them by approved experts and mandated by their Government, is to be excluded from public life, suffered at present to sit outside in the rain but surely not to be admitted among the ranks of the sane.

* * *

Why, then, are these new witch-hunts being carried out? This is a difficult matter to speculate on without being designated as a ‘dangerous conspiracy theorist’ – probably the most common and reductive designator in the Covid obfuscation of diseased bodies and diseased minds.

But we might at least consider what their effects might be – that line of questioning might be entered upon quite safely. After all, presuming that discrimination against an unvaccinated cohort of the population will produce effects is as compatible with the ‘cock-up’ theory of what is happening as it is with the ‘conspiracy’ theories.

And we may begin quite innocently, merely by considering the effects of the original witch-hunts – the ones that Federici describes.

From out of recoil from the body of the witch was born a revulsion at certain ways of living – childlessness, promiscuity, nomadism, traditional healing, festival, and subsistence were all cast under suspicion as lunacy of one kind or another.

From this, there followed a number of new developments: the monogamous, procreating couple became orthodox, a bastion of all that was morally and intellectually sane; regular habits and abode and waged labour became naturalised; and childbirth and gradually all health matters came to be overseen by professionals in institutions.

These effects bolstered conditions that turned out to be necessary for industrialisation in Europe – a growing and carefully-tended population provided the labour for intensified production; the roll-out of medical care as a professionalised enterprise brought childbirth and the health and conduct of the population largely under state control; the demise of nomadism, the enclosure of common resources and the destruction of ritual and festival naturalised the stable home and regular habits and requirement for wages that were essential for an industrialised workforce.

Were these effects the result of human intentions, of what we like to call ‘conspiracies’? In part, at least, they must have been. But we may confine ourselves to observing merely that they were, that – cock-up or conspiracy – history unfolded thus.

What, then, might be the effects of the Covid witch-hunts? We have good grounds for speculation:

On April 14th, 2020, Antonio Gutteres, the ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations, spoke to camera, warning of “another epidemic”: “A dangerous epidemic of misinformation.”

A “global misinfo-demic is spreading”, he said; “Harmful health advice” is “proliferating”, “falsehoods are filling the airwaves”, “wild conspiracy theories are infecting the internet”, and “hatred is going viral”.

From which glorious rendition of the obfuscation of disease and dissent, Gutteres concluded that what is needed is a vaccine programme – not to counter the scourge of a virus, you understand, but to counter the “poison” of unreason.

“The vaccine is trust,” Gutteres ended by stating – trust in science, trust in institutions, and trust in each other. 

Gutteres’s speech marked a fitting beginning to the new Covid witch-hunts, in which the fight against a much-publicised new disease was to become so mixed up with the suppression of dissent that the acceptance of vaccination against Covid could be touted by one of the world’s highest-ranking officials, not as an effort against infection, but as a profession of belief in the institutions of government, in the decrees of experts, and in the welfare of the herd.

What might be the effects of the Covid witch-hunts? Gutteres has spelt them out for us: individual freedom and bodily autonomy to become less important, open to being overruled for the greater good; determination of previously private choices by designated scientists to be accepted as a fact of life; and digital surveillance by the state of all aspects of personal identity, including health status, to be normalised.

Is it all the result of human intentions? Is it all a ‘conspiracy’? Or does that really matter?  

* * *

The Irish did not burn witches, according to Federici’s research – with the exception of those living in the Western Scottish Highlands, the only people in Europe not to do so.

How much greater the falling off, then, that Ireland would be at the forefront of the Covid witch-hunts, excluding from human society those members who do not submit their will to governments, to experts, and to the allegedly ‘common’ good, with the implied justification that this lack of submission is a form of unreason so extreme that it is, to quote O’Toole, something “wild”.

Designating certain members of the human population as wild animals has been the most common device of historical obfuscations of disease and dissent. Both dirty and incapable of any but the most rudimentary logic, such animals embody precisely the confusion of uncleanliness and unreason that the great discriminations against people have so often relied upon.

Depictions of witches, mostly distributed by government functionaries in what Federici names as the first multi-media state propaganda effort ever, commonly included wild animals – cats of course, but also toads and dogs. These creatures were typically presented as rolling in mud or mating or eating flesh or as otherwise involved in unclean and unreasonable acts in which the witch was effortlessly implicated.

And it is not very long ago that the Irish were victims of this device. My own father walked the streets of Kentish Town in the 1960s, bypassing many a lodging house with the infamous “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish” sign on the window.

But now it is the Irish themselves who are playing this paltry trick, with public houses across the land displaying “No Unvaccinated” signs for all to see. There is no indication yet of an explicit grouping of the unvaccinated with wild animals, but, in these times where all of history’s horrors are seeming to return one by one, that may follow.

Already in France, one member of parliament is reported as having pasted this notice on his office door: No Entry to Animals and People Without A Vaccine Pass.

Dr Sinéad Murphy is a Research Associate in Philosophy at Newcastle University.