Brendan Ogle: This week, a number of unions started distributing masks bearing the legend ‘pro-mask is pro-worker’. It seems an obvious statement. After all, it is workers – especially in low-paying sectors – who have borne the economic and health brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet there are those cynically trying to convince working people that they should oppose public health measures and breach guidelines en masse.
Mixed messaging from public authorities, and the complete mess made of the vaccination rollout by the EU and our Government, has heightened frustration at the restrictions associated with Covid-19, and this has been compounded by the unequal impact of the pandemic. While lockdowns have had a minimal financial impact on some workers, many others have lost their jobs and been forced to rely on state income supports.
In this context the summer and autumn of 2020 saw some people take to the streets of Dublin in what were dubbed ‘anti-lockdown’ or ‘anti-mask’ protests. Similar protests took place in Dublin and Cork over recent weeks, and more are planned to coincide with St Patrick’s Day next week.
Many of those voicing frustration on the streets or on social media have no hidden agenda. Like all of us, they simply want their normal lives back, and past experience means that they don’t trust the Government to safeguard either their economic or physical wellbeing. Neither do we.
But Covid-19 challenges us to separate our legitimate distrust of government from the scientific evidence which tells us not only that Covid-19 is real and lethal, but also what measures need to be taken to save lives. Anti-lockdown protests have been largely driven by online misinformation. Most of us will have seen the videos circulating on social media and WhatsApp groups claiming that Covid-19 is a ‘scamdemic’ engineered by a global elite, or that masks are dangerous, or that vaccines have been designed to implant control chips.
And they are just some of the more moderate conspiracy theories!
But what many people sharing such material or protesting against Covid-19 health measures – from masks to lockdowns to vaccines – may not realise is that those organising such protests are often themselves masking their far-right political allegiances. The pandemic and opposition to the restrictions are simply instrumental for these far-right forces: their real agenda is to promote their own ethno-nationalist and authoritarian world view. In summary, they are using the historic fascist tactic of whipping up genuine concern to promote division and hate. And they are quite happy to sacrifice public health to further that agenda.
The pandemic is not a conspiracy, and nor are the public health measures implemented to contain it. There is only one conspiracy, and that is the cynical conspiracy by far-right actors – some of whom may be based in Ireland but take their ideology and direction from elsewhere – to foster fear and divide workers.
There are many reasons to criticise the Irish Government’s response to the pandemic as too little, too late and too slow. This union has been very critical. The rollout of vaccines in particular has been both delayed and haphazard, and the Government must be held to account for their failings.
However, this should not deflect us from the absolute need to work together to beat Covid, not break asunder and spread it.
When we wear a mask, keep our social distance or take a vaccine when it’s offered, we are protecting ourselves and others. It’s all about solidarity.
As we prepare to celebrate Ireland’s national holiday, we need to resist those who are not only trying to divide us but who are also seeking to co-opt our national symbols, appropriate our language and culture and sow division to further their own narrow agendas of hate. History tells us where the cynical use of these tactics by the far-right ends. But Irishness is about inclusivity and solidarity. We know this. Be strong and resist the purveyors of hate.
St Patrick would wear a mask!