IN THE Forth Valley Royal Hospital in Larbert, some folk finally saw the light. According to a senior nurse on a Covid ward, which has seen a steep rise in admissions in recent weeks, some patients have told her: “I wish I had listened. I didn’t really believe it was real.”

For many of us, braced for the next update on the death toll or front line report from an intensive care unit, it is inconceivable that people can think the pandemic is made up or exaggerated. How can anyone doubt the threat this poses, and go around feeling insouciant and safe? At a time when every shop door handle holds the menace of a grenade, such an outlook is unfathomable.

Yet it is not as uncommon as you might think. Nor is it linked to intelligence or education, or lack thereof. For whatever reason, baffling though it is to those of us who trust reliable sources of information, there are countless individuals who are adamant that Covid is either a hoax, a conspiracy, or a fuss about nothing; and that the vaccines are intended to wipe us out. Behind all this lie malevolent manipulators, intent on...well, quite what they hope to achieve by terrifying or killing us off remains unclear, but the fear remains potent.

Astonishingly, not all Covid naysayers come to their senses when they fall victim. Last autumn, as cases in the US soared, there were reports of victims gasping for air in the emergency room, yet still insisting that Covid was fake. That really does take the breath away.

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Somehow, though, it feels worse that anyone here could also deny it. It is not as if we live in a chaotic or rogue state, where we have been deluged in unchallenged propaganda or starved of reliable information. Nor is that information difficult to access. Indeed, one of the most miserable aspects of the past year has been the dogged coverage of escalating tragedy: footage of mortuaries filled with the dead, of serried ranks of coffins in funeral homes, of the mortally ill saying goodbye to their loved ones from behind oxygen masks.

Do Covid deniers never watch, listen or read the news, or do they tune in only to what they want to believe? Certainly, down the rabbit holes of social media it is possible to find yourself in a netherworld, so far from reality you could be a character Alice in Wonderland. Except that Alice kept her wits about her, and never lost her grip on sanity.

Alarmingly, as is becoming clear, the pandemic is only the latest of the fault lines opening up between people whose world views lie at opposite ends of a spectrum. We can mock thwarted Trump voters who continue to believe that the election was rigged, despite not an iota of evidence to support that conclusion. Unlike Covid, where the facts are omnipresent, the US election result has been contested without any foothold in reality. Believing the Democrats cheated says more about protesters’ state of mind than about what the ballot boxes contained.

And yet, their certainty and grievance are real; there’s no denying that. Nor is any of us entirely immune to being manipulated by tricks or lies. You can point to the Brexiteer threats of a tsunami of immigration if we stayed in the EU as an egregious falsehood, but many of those who swallowed it whole were already at a point where it merely bolstered their convictions, rather than shaped them.

When it comes to medical denial, there is a long and sorry history of refusniks. Just think of John Gummer, obliging his daughter to eat a beef burger on camera to show that there was no danger of Mad Cow Disease (a friend of his daughter later died of BSE). The government similarly played down the dangers of contracting salmonella from eggs, until Edwina Currie spoke up.


The more facts and figures we are bombarded with, in our never-sleeping news cycle, the trickier it becomes to find a reasonable position between unquestioning credulity and healthy scepticism. For years it was possible to be a climate change denier, and remain intellectually credible. Now, you’re considered nutty if you still don’t get it.

What is troubling about those who refuse to believe what is happening around them, despite the evidence of their own eyes, is that it doesn’t make sense. It suggests wholesale disparagement, mistrust or terror of those who run the country, a determination to find hidden and sinister motives behind every announcement and regulation.

Some deniers, doubtless, have no guiding principles or cosmology whatsoever, and simply prefer to ignore the wider world beyond their walls. In general, though, the level of suspicion and the passion with which untenable beliefs are held are motivated by something far stronger than lack of engagement. Discrediting Covid even when it has you in its grip; denouncing global warming, despite the wildfire sweeping over your house, suggest advanced paranoia and a sense of persecution.

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Nor is such an outlook entirely unreasonable at all times. Leadership in many countries is at worst despotic, and at the best, frequently mendacious, opaque, contradictory and evasive. Traditional media outlets deliver news that is properly researched and sourced, yet often biased in tone or emphasis. And the web is awash not just with documented fact but with misinformation that goes largely unchallenged.

The fact that anyone can seriously and sustainedly deny Covid’s existence is merely the tip of an iceberg we’ve been trying to ignore. It is a shocking demonstration of a breakdown in societal trust and cohesion. When people refuse to acknowledge reality, and choose instead to believe what they want to believe, facts, truth, testimonies, photographic or recorded proof are cast aside as irrelevant.

Despite the decline in religion in the West, maybe there is an ongoing hunger to put faith in the unprovable and intangible, an urge for creeds and a community of the likeminded based on unverifiable feelings and imaginary connections. Who knows what makes people enter a parallel world to the one beneath our feet. Personally, however, I find the idea that facts and evidence no longer matter even scarier than Covid.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.