What is the age of “COVID hegemony”? It might just have something to do with the Kraken sea monster. Read on to find out more – from COVID to climate and other global health news.
Our first ICYMI column for 2023 also brings news of job opportunities at the Lowitja Institute, VicHealth and elsewhere, as well as details of a stack of conferences and events likely to be of interest to Croakey readers.
And vale Professor David Penington, who will be remembered for Making Waves.
“The COVID ‘Kraken’ has been released, but it’s not a variant – it’s our indifference.” This is the headline of a recent article by an experienced health journalist in Canada, André Picard, that also resonates for the current situation in Australia.
Picard writes that the Kraken, a giant sea monster of Scandinavian folklore that rises up from the ocean to devour its enemies, is also the nickname given to XBB.1.5, the latest Omicron subvariant of the virus that causes COVID-19.
Rather than worrying so much about what the World Health Organization calls the “most transmissible” variant yet, Picard suggests we should be focusing more on human (including perhaps political) behaviour rather than on the qualities of any particular sub-variant.
The best protection we have against new subvariants such as XBB.1.5 is still the boring basics, he says: get vaccinated and boosted; test before attending gatherings; mask up in indoor public spaces; pay attention to ventilation; if you have symptoms, stay home; and if you have COVID-19, get the appropriate treatment.
Picard stresses the importance of concerted efforts to protect groups at increased risk from COVID, and of acknowledging that COVID-19 infections can have long-term consequences, in the form of Long COVID.
“The biggest advantage new variants have on us is our behaviour,” he writes. “The real Kraken is no longer the virus – it’s our monstrous level of indifference to the pandemic’s ongoing, and inequitable, carnage.”
Meanwhile, in Australia.
In this Twitter thread, Dr Blair Williams summarises the article, as per below:
What is “hegemony”? I draw from Gramsci, who “proposed that those who hold power could ensure that their preferred worldview would be seen as natural, inevitable and beneficial to all by creating and maintaining what he termed cultural hegemony.”
Those with power achieve hegemony “not by force, but by coercive persuasion. That is, by gaining popular acceptance, even approval of their moral and political values.”
As we’ve all seen, “there has been a push by the media, certain experts, and politicians to ‘return to normal’ and live with mounting infection, disability and death.”
“This is most evident in the myths about the virus … including: ‘COVID is mild’, ‘schools are safe’, ‘children don’t transmit the virus’, ‘COVID is mild in children’, ‘hybrid immunity’, ‘it’s endemic’, ‘it’s just like the flu’, and ‘the pandemic is over.'”
I argue that, “as such, we perceive the pandemic as less risky and any protective measure as an overreaction.” I also point out how “hegemony is frequently achieved by adapting pre-existing beliefs or prejudices”, such as using the idea of “pandemic fatigue” to further wind back protective measures.
To gain our consent, “our governments also actively suppress information relating to COVID.” E.g. lack of PCR tests, winding back mandates to report positive RATs, and reporting new cases and deaths weekly instead of daily.
I argue that this presents “a false reality to ease our (justified) anxiety and to lower our personal risk perception and expectations of the state’s role in protecting us from harm, while those who continue to avoid COVID are pathologised.”
Though “we increasingly see a return to normal as advantageous … there is mounting evidence that letting it rip will pose an accumulative burden on society, the economy, and individual health.”
I conclude that: “Living (and dying) with COVID does not benefit us. It is only advantageous to those who depend on a speedy return to a pre-pandemic capitalist status quo.”
“It is also politically beneficial as it shifts the responsibility from state to individual, precipitating what @c_s_wallace has called ‘the biggest victory for neoliberal public health policy in memory.’ This is the age of COVID hegemony.”
Relatively simple prevention measures – such as masking – have become embroiled in culture wars amid a sea of misinformation, disinformation and inconsistent messaging (really, it’s ok for athletes to compete when they have COVID???)
In this article, a professor of psychology in the UK makes suggestions to reframe mask-wearing, and “take the wind out of populist sails”. He suggests framing it as something we do for each other rather than something that is done to us, so that it “stops being an issue of autonomy and becomes an assertion of agency”. See this Twitter thread by Dr Lucky Tran In this Twitter thread, Professor Trisha Greenhalgh unpicks some of the reasons behind resistance to masking up, and explores the downsides and benefits. “In sum,” she says, “evidence for masking is strong, consistent and clear. A high-quality, well-fitting mask which meets a filtration standard (e.g. FFP2 or N95) works better than a home-made cloth mask with gaps round the sides, but even the latter is a lot better than nothing. Why do some scientists insist that there is “no evidence” for masks? Primarily, I think, because their libertarian identity prompts them to a) frame masking as a coercive & suspicious activity and b) focus narrowly on benefits to the wearer rather than to society as a whole.”
Climate and health
Read the article by Dr Richard Horton about a book by an Ecuadorian epidemiologist, Jaime Breilh, Critical Epidemiology and the People’s Health (2021), which “is a magnificent challenge to western scientific traditions underpinning medicine and public health”.
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