© 2021 All rights reserved. SEOmaxim UK
It was a few weeks before Christmas when reports first emerged from Italy of doctors being abused, insulted and physically intimidated.
Italy, of all places. Where hospitals were overwhelmed last February by suffering on an almost medieval scale, and where public gratitude towards medical staff risking their lives inspired Britain to clap for its own care workers. But by November, Italian doctors using their social media accounts to warn of a serious second wave were being swamped with abuse from Covid deniers.
Their car windows were smashed, murals celebrating their heroism defaced; a family doctor in Vicenza who asked a patient to put a mask on was beaten up. Somehow, doctors had become the enemy. They were bearing the brunt of the backlash for bringing news nobody wanted to hear, which was that the nightmare was back. Still, for some reason I assumed nothing like that could happen in the UK. Now that feels complacent.
It’s doctors, more than journalists or politicians, whose eyewitness reports make Covid denial so hard to sustain, and for a twisted few that creates a motive to shut them up. With reporters largely denied access to hospital wards in the eye of the storm, doctors using Twitter or YouTube or Instagram to talk about what it’s like on the inside have become almost citizen journalists. They can translate those scary but abstract graphs of rising infections into human stories that are so much harder to ignore or argue with, and some clearly feel an ethical duty to do so.
Many scientists, too, are spending spare time they don’t have plugging patiently away at an avalanche of social media misinformation, a shaming amount of it peddled by blue-tick columnists who were arguing only a few months ago that the pandemic was over or that rising infections were just due to false positives. An activist generation of medics have become the frontline against Covid denial as well as Covid itself, but at an increasingly heavy personal price.
Dr Matthew Lee, a senior house officer at St Thomas’ hospital in central London and a YouTuber posting regularly about life as a doctor, emerged last week from a late shift on A&E to what he described as “hundreds of maskless, drunk people in huge groups shouting, ‘Covid is a hoax’, literally outside the building where hundreds are sick and dying”. His post brought an outpouring of sympathy from the public and frustration from other NHS staff, describing the pressures of doing an unimaginably difficult job while being antagonised by trolls claiming hospitals are empty really. But it also brought forth enough deniers to show what they’re up against.
Matt Morgan, a critical care consultant at the University Hospital of Wales who has been a prominent voice in the media, revealed last week that his reward was to be called a eugenicist and a pharmaceutical shill. One of his colleagues, meanwhile, received a death threat. It was tough, he said, picking up his phone to relax after a grim day’s work and hearing “that what you’ve done is a lie or what you’ve done is exaggerated”.
There’s nothing new, of course, about NHS staff who speak out being trawled for political affiliations or anything else that might discredit them. Although some of the higher-profile names on medical Twitter are familiar from the junior doctors’ strike (which perhaps first revealed a divergence between older BMA members and a more impatient, politicised younger generation), that’s by no means true of all.
It’s fair enough, too, to weigh the stories of someone who claims online to be a doctor against reality – there are fantasists out there, and anyone can make a mistake. But that’s not what is happening here. This is about naked, drive-by hostility from strangers, some of whose almost deranged unwillingness to hear the truth must surely be rooted in fear. Denial is a powerful way of managing the anxiety we all feel. Yet the cumulative effect, scrolling through the replies to doctors and scientists on social media, is to make you wonder why they bother banging their heads against the brick wall. And presumably that’s the point. How many must conclude there are easier ways to spend their time off?
Covid trolls are still a tiny minority. Most people are overwhelmingly grateful to, and supportive of, all those fighting the virus. Social media is emphatically not real life. But that’s not to say it doesn’t matter. Anyone who has been on the end of online misogyny, racism or other forms of bullying knows how visceral it can feel; that even if it’s never likely to spill over into physical confrontation, intimidation works. Nobody wants to be viciously harangued or ganged up on in their own living room, and so a handful of zealots can have a chilling effect wholly disproportionate to their numbers. It’s tempting just to avoid topics guaranteed to make a war zone of the place you go to relax, even when disputing untruths is your job, let alone when it’s done unpaid at the end of a knackering shift in the hope of having one fewer dying hand to hold in future.
Looking back now on March, when a nation tried to show its support and boost morale by sticking “Thank you NHS” posters in our windows or sending cakes into A&E, obviously it wasn’t enough. But those were halcyon days in comparison with what’s now being dished out to staff exhausted and in some cases traumatised by the first wave of Covid. They have no choice but to face reality on a daily basis. All they ask from us, in return, is to be believed.
Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist