It was a few weeks before Christmas that the first allegations of bullying, threatening and physically intimidating doctors from Italy appeared. Italy, of all places. Where hospitals were overwhelmed last February by misery on an almost medieval scale, and where public gratitude to medical professionals who sacrificed their lives encouraged Britain to applaud its own caregivers.
But in November, the violence of covid deniers flooded Italian doctors who used their social media pages to warn of an extreme second wave: their car windows were broken, murals praising their heroism were defaced; a family doctor was beaten up in Vicenza who asked a patient to put on a mask.
Somehow, doctors had become the enemy. Since they sent a message that no one wanted to hear, that the nightmare was back, they held the brunt of the outrage.
Yet, I thought, for some reason, that anything like that could not happen in the UK. Rather than journalists or politicians, the doctors whose eyewitness accounts make it so difficult to maintain Covid’s denial, and for a few warped ones, it is the doctors who build a justification to silence them. Doctors posting on Twitter, YouTube, or Instagram about what it’s like inside have almost become citizen journalists, with reporters mostly denied entry to the infirmaries in the eye of the storm. These frightening yet abstract graphs of rising infections can be converted into human stories that are far more difficult to disregard or deny, and some obviously feel an ethical duty to do so. Many scientists still spend their spare time patiently battling an epidemic of social media disinformation from which a shameful number of blue tick columnists spread, suggesting only a few months ago that the pandemic was over or that the increase in infections was attributable only to false positive results.
Last week, Dr. Matthew Lee, a senior employee at St. Thomas Hospital in central London and a YouTuber who frequently posts about life as a doctor, came off a late shift in the emergency room and saw what he described as “hundreds of mask-less, drunk people in huge groups literally screaming ‘Covid is a hoax’ outside the building where hundreds are sick and dying.”
But it also brought out enough deniers to explain what they were up against. Last week, Matt Morgan, a critical care medicine consultant at the University Hospital of Wales who was a popular voice in the media, announced that his reward was to be labeled a eugenicist and a pharmacist. Meanwhile, one of his coworkers got a death threat.
It was frustrating, he said, as he picked up the phone after a long day’s work to unwind and learn “that what you did was a lie or that what you did was exaggerated. “Naturally, it’s nothing unusual for NHS workers who speak out to be checked for political affiliations or something else that might undermine them.
Although some of the more famous names on medical Twitter are recognizable from the strike of junior doctors (which may have revealed a disparity between older BMA members and a more impatient, politicised younger generation for the first time), this is by no means true of all of them. It is also fair enough to weigh the stories of someone pretending to be an online doctor against fact.
That’s not what’s going on here, though. This is about the naked, driving aggression of strangers, some of whom surely must be rooted in terror, their almost deranged inability to hear the truth.
Denial is an efficient way of managing the fear that we all feel. But when you look at the comments on social media from doctors and scientists, you wonder why they bother running their heads into the wall.
And that’s possibly the point. How many have to say that there are better ways to spend their free time? The trolls only represent a tiny minority.
The majority of people are very much in support of all those who condemn the virus.