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The curious case of Covid deniers

As the UK became the first country in western Europe to record 3 million overall coronavirus cases, a number that is now approaching 4 million, most of us can hardly imagine a world without this virus.

But for some, denying the existence of Covid-19 has become part of their daily lives. From posting videos of empty hospitals online, harassing medical staff and protesting Covid-19 measures, the numbers of Covid sceptics appearing online seem to be growing every day. But who are these Covid deniers and what are the bases for their claims? 

An increasing number of videos of ‘empty’ hospitals have been circulating online, filmed by people trying to disprove the widely reported fact that the NHS is extremely overwhelmed by the pandemic. These videos show quiet waiting rooms, empty A&E departments and silent corridors, and are often accompanied by the hashtag “filmyourhospital”. This trend started in the US in March of 2020 during the initial lockdown, and the latest burst of this happening in the UK shows that this scepticism isn’t going away, even as death tolls get higher. 

Many healthcare professionals have released statements that debunk the claims made by these videos. In response to a set of videos filmed at Croydon University Hospital’s ‘empty’ A&E waiting room, a spokesperson for the trust responded by saying that these videos are not representative of the reality of the situation in hospitals today.

In fact, across the country, including here in Edinburgh, NHS trusts are reporting an increased strain on their services – quite the opposite to what is seen in the videos. 

In fact, what is seen in the videos is evidence of the reorganisation of many NHS hospitals in order to separate Covid patients from the rest of the hospital. Although the corridors of some hospitals may seem quiet, the wards are at almost full capacity. Additionally, one of the main problems facing hospitals is in fact staff shortages.

Professor Mike Griffin, President of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, said the increasing numbers of staff off work was a “major problem”.

In the past few weeks, Edinburgh has seen a variety of protests organised by the action group Scotland Against Lockdown. Although the numbers of people attending these protests are not enormous, the anti-mask and anti-lockdown sentiments shown here are shared by many online. One Facebook group dedicated to sharing videos of ‘empty’ UK hospitals, although it has now been taken down, had more than 13,000 members. 

The reason for a boom in this sort of conversation online in recent weeks, specifically in the UK, can be put down to a few different factors. The combination of new lockdown requirements and increasing government restrictions has led to increased frustration from many people online. 

But Covid denial runs deeper than that; there is a psychological reason why some people turn to conspiracy theories in times of crisis and high stress. Vaile Wright, the director of clinical research and quality at the American Psychological Association, explains that rebellion in situations such as this one demonstrates a unique human inability to cope with uncertainty. This can be applied to actions such as protesting your right not to wear a mask or trying to remove your loved one from a hospital despite the fact they have Covid. Of course, these actions are not excusable, but this research can prove that when people’s anxieties are fuelled by social media to such an extent, they will go to any lengths to prevent the feeling of being out of control. 

Although it may seem ridiculous to us when Anti-vaxxers and Covid deniers post videos such as these, these actions are far from harmless. With each new video of an ‘empty’ hospital being uploaded onto social media, more and more people are being encouraged to dissuade others from taking the vaccine and not take their own health or that of others seriously.

Hopefully, the warnings by the NHS England chief executive, Sir Simon Stevens, to such Covid deniers that their claims are an “insult” to the hard-working staff at hospitals across the UK will hit home about the reality of the damage their actions can cause. 

Image: Anton Kalashnyk via iconscout