Transmissions from the pandemic’s fringe

When observing a society for futures purposes or literary analysis, I have always appreciated seeing what goes on along the extreme margins. This activity can shed light on issues that more popular or mainstream cultural productions miss. They can also be baffling, infuriating, entertaining, or a mix of these.

Along those lines, today I’d like to share some of what I’ve seen around the fringes of the global coronavirus pandemic. These are recent stories from two countries. Each touches on different ideas and tendencies. Each one might point to some elements of what comes next.

Two caveats: first, to be fair, such stories might not ultimately signal anything, if they fail to gain traction or just fizzle out. That’s always a risk in both futuring and lit crit. Second, these are developing stories, so I’m going on very fast takes and analyses. They could easily mutate into something different as new evidence appears and/or as the stories continue.

ITEM: Some folks are setting up apparently fake coronavirus testing sites in Louisville, Kentucky. Several “testing sites” billed people’s Medicare or took payment directly without offering actual medical services, according to the authorities and activists in that story. Confronted, the site staff fled.

ITEM: A few Brits are setting fire to 5G towers, and authorities are looking into the likelihood that the arsonists believed the tech to be linked to the spread of COVID-19.

Evidence that the conspiracy fans are attacking those towers is tentative so far (it’s a developing story), but this short video offers some grounding, unless it’s a hoax:

Yesterday I shared this story on Twitter, which elicited an anti-5G tweet from Naomi Wolf:

This in turn yielded a pro- and anti-5G thread, including this tone-deaf, historically challenged bit:

ITEM: a Pennsylvania priest wants to hold a Woodstock-scale Easter event in Florida.

“I’m gonna announce it. We’re gonna hold an outdoor Easter blowout service. Not online. A national gathering. You come from all over, like Woodstock. And we’re gonna gather and lift up Jesus Christ.” So far, a location and time for the service have yet to be announced.

An echo of this appeared in Moscow, apparently:

Back to the would-be evan-Woodstocker: listen to how he describes his thinking:

“Shame on every European full gospel church, bunch of sissies, that shut down during this thing. If you’re putting out pamphlets and telling everybody to use Purell before they come into the sanctuary and don’t greet anyone, you should just turn in your ministry credentials and burn your church down — turn it into a casino or something. You’re a loser. Bunch of pansies. No balls. Got neutered somewhere along the line and don’t even realize it.”

ITEM: There is some nice and easy humor about the pandemic and its responses, like that of the reliable Borowitz. But I’m more impressed by Scots comedian Frankie Boyle’s take, which can be far more bleak.

A light sample:

Mistakes have been made in the handling of the crisis. Like flying the Buckingham Palace flag at half mast when the Queen’s not in, which is just an advert for burglars. In my local park, someone has tried to cheer people up by chalking “You Got This!” on the ground. Literally the last thing you want to hear in a pandemic.

So what can we deduce from these stories? What themes can we discern, beyond human daffiness?

We can recognize a string of familiar culture tropes: scamming, conspiracy theory, technological suspicion unto Luddite violence, religion opposing itself to science and state, gender and sexuality reaction, black humor.

I think we might uncover some more signals if we press on these points. The Louisville scam story reminds us of how much credulity we can bring to health care issues. It also recalls how swiftly communities can react to perceived threats to bodily and financial health. The 5G fantasy links up with both of those medical aspects. Wolf’s odd tweet about Belfast reminds me of how often new technologies let us romanticize the past; we should look for people to re-imagine the pre-pandemic past through similarly nostalgia-fogged lenses.

I don’t know anything about the Pennsylvania church’s theology and politics, but they do echo some conservative suspicions of some sciences… a suspicion which dates back a while in American culture.

On Doyle’s column, which I find hilarious and brilliant, there are a few details. First, note how he mocks seniors for political and cultural reasons, working around the edges of ageism. Second, the fierce critique of the Boris government builds to a left wing analysis and call for action:

Indeed, you have to wonder if the virus is so very different from extractive capitalism. It commandeers the manufacturing elements of its hosts, gets them to make stuff for it; kills a fair few, but not enough to stop it spreading. There is no normal for us to go back to. People sleeping in the streets wasn’t normal; children living in poverty wasn’t normal; neither was our taxes helping to bomb the people of Yemen. Using other people’s lives to pile up objects wasn’t normal, the whole thing was absurd. Governments are currently busy pouring money into propping up existing inequalities, and bailing out businesses that have made their shareholders rich. The world’s worst people think that everybody is going to come out of this in a few months and go willingly back into a kind of numbing servitude. Surely it’s time to start imagining something better.

Which isn’t a call to vote Labour, as the author slams them along the way, too. My point is that these stories show some ways people on the political left — and, in Pennsylvania, the right — can view and use COVID-19.

At the same time Boyle made his reputation by pushing jokes to or over the edge, which doesn’t always win general admiration (see these samples of criticism: 1, 2). As disease deaths mount up and economies collapse, we might enjoy and share this kind of dark humor. It’s a staple of experienced soldiers and emergency services staff.

Are you seeing any similar stories from the fringe?

(thanks to Owain Alexander, Mike Richichi, Jesse Walker; cross-posted to my blog)

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Bryan Alexander

Futurist, speaker, writer, consultant, educator. Author of the FTTE report and ACADEMIA NEXT. Creator of The Future Trends Forum.