by Steve Briault
Steve Briault is the Director of Development at Emerson College, where he is responsible for the College’s education programme as well as its capital assets and finances. He was previously an organisation consultant with 25 years’ experience of advising companies, government and voluntary organisations on management processes and structure. He is currently also Chair of Trustees at The Mount Camphill Community and has been trustee and/ or Chair of a range of other charities. His early career included co-founding and managing the Pennine Camphill Community, and restoring the financial stability of a Waldorf School in the role of Administrator. He taught at the Centre for Social Development at Emerson College in the 1980s and has been connected with the College since then. Steve is the author of two books: ‘Working It Out’, a handbook for violence prevention in working with young people, and ‘The Mystery of Meeting – relationships as a path of discovery’. He is also joint editor, with Martin Large, of ‘Free, Equal and Mutual – Rebalancing Society for the Common Good’, a collection of essays to mark the centenary of Rudolf Steiner’s social threefolding initiative.
Like many people, I have continually been receiving messages, links, videos and documents containing different narratives about the source, severity, nature, meaning and indeed existence of COVID-19. Alternative theories are flying around the internet, some almost seeming to become viruses in themselves. Many such materials are sent with an exhortation to “wake up” (i.e. believe their content) and/or to circulate them further. In this infected and confusing landscape it can be hard to orientate oneself, to avoid paranoia or complacency and to make balanced judgements and decisions. Having immersed oneself in anthroposophy, even over many years, does not, I observe, guarantee clear thinking, wise discernment or immunity from the temptation of assuming that one automatically knows better than others, particularly than the so-called mainstream view of events.
As part of my own efforts to orient myself in this toxic force-field, I have tried in this document to outline some principles which I believe are important in assessing and responding to diverse claims, and also to categorise and evaluate as far as I am able the different types of theory which are circulating. (I prefer to avoid the term “conspiracy theory” which is often used to dismiss controversial ideas. Just because there is a conspiracy theory, doesn’t mean there isn’t a conspiracy: equally, it doesn’t mean there is one…).
Principles I would hope to follow:
- Respect conventional science. Steiner repeatedly made clear that natural science is not wrong, but rather, incomplete; and requires spiritual science in addition to create a full picture of the human being and the universe. He also emphasised that the methods of modern science – sound logical thinking, observation and experiment – are the basis on which anthroposophy differs from other and earlier spiritual disciplines. I’m uncomfortable with the use of “materialist” as a term of abuse: materialism is one of twelve legitimate world-views, valid in its own terms though needing the other eleven to balance it.
- Enquire rather than asserting. Many of the materials, videos, texts etc. currently circulating which “question” the mainstream narrative do not actually question at all, but simply assert – often in aggressive, dogmatic or self-congratulatory tones – the certainties of the author/presenter. If present at all in such messages, questions are mainly rhetorical or sarcastic. One of the most impressive aspects I experience from many “mainstream experts” is their frankness about what they don’t know or where they are uncertain – e.g. the origin of the virus, the accuracy of the tests, the predictions about and measurement of the rate of infection etc. Questioning, and the testing of hypotheses against evidence, are healthy scientific principles which we should also adopt. We should enquire open-mindedly, not jump to adopt extreme assertions which we have not ourselves independently verified.
- Avoid vilification of individuals or categories of people. Calling those who promote vaccination “mass murderers”, accusing people like Bill Gates of genocide and attempted world domination, or painting the BBC as an inveterate purveyor of disinformation, does no service to legitimate questioning of current practice and reporting. I have worked with many people in the civil service, the BBC, production and service industries, and with hundreds of NHS doctors, nurses, researchers, statisticians and managers, and found them with very few exceptions to be men and women of intelligence, probity and good intention. The idea that these and hundreds of thousands like them are either so stupid and naïve, or so corrupt, as to be part of a massive plot to deceive and harm the general population, seems to me completely incredible as well as highly disrespectful.
- Exercise modesty and responsibility in what we say and what we circulate. It is remarkable how many non-scientists – cultural workers like myself – now feel themselves able to speak with confidence about issues well outside their own competence, on the basis of having been convinced by something posted on YouTube. Questioning the authority of conventional scientists should not lead to unquestioning acceptance of the authority of alternative, self-designated “experts”. I think it’s unwise and irresponsible to propagate narratives that could create unnecessary alarm – as may or may not be the case with 5G – or indeed complacency where there should be alarm – as with climate change – unless one has checked the evidence and its source oneself. Encouragingly, I have also been sent links recently in which people who had propagated a controversial view have retracted this and apologised in the light of what they subsequently discovered.
- Think for oneself. As anthroposophists, we should be mindful of Steiner’s repeated enjoinders to develop clear thinking and independent judgement. In assessing controversial claims, I think this would include asking oneself, and if possible researching, questions such as:
- What is the background and qualification of the person making these statements?
- Do their claims make sense in the context of other knowledge and experience I have?
- Is it plausible that the alleged conspirators would behave as described? Why would it be in their interests to do so?
- Where my own expertise is limited, whom would I trust to give me informed comment? In my own case, it has been very helpful to be able to consult two of my sons, both Waldorf-educated and scientifically trained – one an environmental engineer, the other a hospital anaesthetist currently treating coronavirus patients.
A typology of controversialism:
These are some of the main categories of theory I have seen recently:
- Minimalizing: this is the narrative that suggests that the virus, if there is one, is in itself relatively harmless, only dangerous for small sections of the population and essentially little different from many other viruses and coronaviruses that create colds, flu etc. The argument is that for whatever reason, with whatever motivation, the danger has been exaggerated and therefore the lockdown measures unnecessary. This account seems mainly to have come from a number of German doctors: in that country the infection and mortality rate has been far lower than elsewhere in Europe and the US – less than 10,000 deaths compared to c.40,000 in the UK – and it is quite likely that most of those fatalities were indeed people whose age or existing conditions made them particularly vulnerable. Donald Trump started his erratic and politicised approach to the epidemic by denying, then minimising the threat; now in the face of more than 80,000 deaths he declares it “the worst ever attack” on the US.
The clearest evidence seems to suggest that although harmless for many, COVID-19 can be deadly not only for the well-known high-risk groups, but also for some who are neither elderly nor otherwise unhealthy, and the reasons for this are still unknown. My medical son has seen a previously healthy 52-year-old man with no pre-existing conditions die from the virus – “no matter how much oxygen we put into him, his body just couldn’t absorb it…one after another his organs just went down; and there was nothing we could do”. Besides this unpredictable severity, the coronavirus does seem to be much more easily transferred than other viruses, meaning that without controlling the spread, and with no vaccine and no treatment, an indefinite and potentially very large number of individuals could die in this way.
- Unlockdownism: the minimisation narrative naturally questions the necessity for the social isolation measures which have been imposed in the UK and elsewhere. There are undoubtedly severe, widespread and damaging unintended consequences to the lockdown – economic, social, psychological and indeed medical – and it is absolutely legitimate to question whether and for how long they should continue. At the same time, it is also clear that those countries – especially ones with obedient populations – which reacted quickly, consistently and radically to the arrival of the virus, escaped much more lightly in terms of infection and mortality rates. South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and China are examples of this, but also Germany and Switzerland. Mask-wearing, contact tracing, testing and full social distancing were effective in controlling the spread; the initial policy of the UK government, which relied on the gradual acquisition of “herd immunity”, failed and had to be replaced by the current controls, which may as a consequence have to be in place for much longer than elsewhere.
If the authorities are clear that a “second peak” must be avoided to protect the NHS, the policy of maintaining restrictions to keep the “R” number less than 1 makes sense. Whether we agree with this policy or not, it’s also clear that to succeed it needs all or most of us to adhere to it; and it is therefore understandable that the government avoids dwelling on the disadvantages in order not to undermine the primary message. In Germany the infection rate is now (10thMay) rising again as a result of easing the lockdown.
A 70-year old friend who is unhappy about the lockdown wrote to me that she would embrace her own death (from the virus) if that would serve the freedom of her children and grandchildren. I would want to respond: that is indeed very noble, but it’s not about you and your choices, it’s about those people whom the restrictions are designed to protect, and who might prefer not to die prematurely even in the notional cause of freedom.
- Corporate conspiracy: there is a school of thought which suggests that the “plandemic” was deliberately created or fabricated in order to serve commercial interests, which are variously suggested as profiting from vaccination products, bail-outs from governments, or the development of testing or tracking technology. I am as suspicious as anyone of the influence and motivation of large corporations and the owners of capital who control them, and appalled that the impact of coronavirus is disproportionately affecting those who are already disadvantaged. Nevertheless, the idea that the epidemic was somehow designed to serve corporate interests overall does not bear scrutiny. The impact on share prices, financial institutions and government debt has been enormous and highly disadvantageous to global capital. This is why Trump and his neo-con supporters, who desperately need a strong US economy to facilitate DT’s re-election, initially denied and minimised the problem. Of course, some people and businesses will always find ways of profiting from human suffering, and the pharmaceutical industry in particular has a lot to answer for in this respect; but it will rightly come under great pressure to make products than can prevent or treat COVID-19 as widely and affordably available as possible.
- World domination: another source of anxiety is the prospect of some kind of “world government” being created, using (or perhaps manufacturing) the pandemic as an excuse to subject us all to centralised authority. (The same accusation has been made in relation to climate change.) This is a genuine concern and dilemma: on the one hand, the dangers of global governance and its potential for oppression, corruption, and loss of diversity and liberty, are obvious; on the other hand, the lack of international coordination and cooperation has clearly inhibited a coherent and effective response to a global threat – as indeed has been the case, tragically, in relation to climate change.
One fruitful approach to this dilemma is clearly the principle of social threefolding, whereby equality in the sphere of rights – e.g. legal restrictions on the right to pollute, to destroy eco-systems, or to put others at risk of disease – is balanced by liberty in the purely cultural realm where one person’s freedom does not impinge on another’s, and mutuality in an economy which genuinely serves the needs of all consumers. Another is the principle of subsidiarity, which suggests that only those issues which cannot be resolved at “lower”, more local levels should be devolved “upwards” to more general bodies.
International and supra-national bodies such as the EU, the WHO, the UN and the IPCC, for all their imperfections, are necessary in order for humanity to research and agree how to address global challenges. The alternative is a nationalistic or individualistic free-for-all in which social Darwinism is the ruling force, and global catastrophe the likeliest outcome.
- 5G: many people were of course concerned about this next step in electromagnetic technology long before “coronavirus” entered our everyday language. Some have sought to associate the roll-out of 5G with the incidence and severity of the epidemic – whether through a suspected weakening of the immune system, or the allegation that the wave radiation somehow directly creates viruses. Such polemicists often use flawed “post hoc” arguments, suggesting that geographical correlation between 5G implementation and infection or death rates demonstrates a causal connection. This is the equivalent of saying that because most possessors of facial hair wear trousers and very few wear dresses, it is clear that trousers cause beards and dresses prevent them. In any case, there is no such geographical correlation, and plenty of counter-evidence: South Korea and Hong Kong are saturated with 5G yet have very low coronavirus rates; Iran has no 5G but has suffered a serious epidemic.
Moreover, there are extremely wide differences in susceptibility between individuals,within populations which can be assumed to have been exposed to similar levels of 5G or other radiation. Any argument for causal influence would need to show that individuals who became ill or died had been “irradiated” more than their neighbours who had only mild or zero symptoms. As far as I know, no such evidence exists.
On the question of 5G more generally, I personally have an open mind about the risks, but feel there are far more serious and urgent concerns, connected with the environment, human rights and inequality, that deserve higher priority. My limited technical knowledge understands that the radiation emitted through 5G technology is, like radio and mobile phone waves, non-ionising and therefore unlikely to cause damage to humans.
I remember considerable paranoia in the 1990’s about the alleged dangers of mobile phone technology, yet I and most people I know have been using this daily since then, with no discernible impact on our physical well-being.
There are of course people who are sensitive to EMR, and at Emerson College we restrict wifi to certain areas and buildings out of respect for these individuals, who are perhaps more common among our students and visitors than in the general population, in the same way that we provide gluten-free meals for those with allergies. This does not imply that wheat – or wifi – are in themselves necessarily harmful.
- Vaccination: I worked with vaccine-damaged children in Camphill in the 1970’s, so am well aware that some individuals react negatively, in some cases disastrously, to immunisation procedures. I remember Dr Thomas Weihs remarking that the approach was comparable to ancient religious practices in which an individual was sacrificed in order to save the larger tribe or community.
However, since then (it is claimed that) the safety of current vaccinations has improved, and I have had vigorous debates with my medic son in which he quotes alarming statistics about e.g. child deaths from measles in countries where vaccination is not available, as well as the fatal diseases that have been eliminated by vaccines.
Some anti-vaccine campaigners suggest that viruses do not actually spread diseases: however this seems to fly in the face of e.g. the historical fact that vast numbers of indigenous people in the Americas were wiped out by the introduction of viral illnesses brought by European invaders, long before any “electrical events”. Smallpox and polio were both viral illnesses, clearly spread by inter-human infection.
I have never taken up the flu vaccine, relying on my generally very robust constitution. I wouldn’t bother with a COVID vaccine either, unless I were convinced that by having it I would significantly reduce the likelihood of putting others at risk. I had all the “normal” vaccinations as a child, and they didn’t prejudice my immune system or make me into a materialist: nor have I ever met anyone of my generation who claims to have been damaged by vaccination. Nevertheless I did not vaccinate my own children as infants, with the result that two of my sons went through a very painful episode of mumps in adolescence: whether this strengthened or weakened their later resilience I can’t judge…
- Sinophobia: when reality contradicted Trump’s initial minimisation tactics, he quickly moved to blaming China in the attempt to make himself and his handling of the crisis – and foreign relations – defensible. Some of his more extreme right-wing, nationalistic supporters have suggested that the virus originated in a laboratory in Wuhan and was created and/or released as a biological weapon. A milder variation is that the virus accidentally “escaped” from this virology research facility.
It does seem to be the case that the Chinese authorities originally tried to deal with the outbreak in secret, and were late in admitting and communicating the existence and nature of the disease. Once they did so, however, they seem to have done everything possible to warn other countries of the risks, share their own knowledge and indeed offer professional and practical help to affected populations. From my visits to China I know that those people and their leaders are keen to be perceived as cooperative and responsible in their international relations. The reality – in terms of the political and military powers – may in some cases be very different: however, if they actually wished to use a coronavirus to damage rival economies, they would certainly have found a better method than inflicting it on their own population first, shutting down their own industries and incurring huge economic losses before it affected other countries. The Sinophobic hypothesis is simply not plausible.
- Ecosophy: a virus, like every earthly organism, is a spiritual as well as a physical being: “Spirit never without matter; matter never without spirit”. It arises from and is integrally connected with a particular ecosystem within the overall biosphere. Viruses are integral inhabitants of undamaged natural environments. When humans inflict damage, distortion, exploitation and cruelty on to other organisms, destructive forces are released which sooner or later also affect human populations. The most credible “mainstream” hypothesis – scientists accept it is still unproven – is that COVID-19 “jumped species” from a wild-caught bat sold for food in the market in Wuhan. This video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2cEXfJc6_d0 expresses most coherently and accessibly, if a little sentimentally, the ecological narrative which I find the most compelling and credible.
To move from “ecology” to “Ecosophy” – “wisdom of the household (of nature)”, as “Anthroposophy” enhances “anthropology” – one can consider, for example, how Steiner speaks about the way in which suffering inflicted on the group souls of animals can create beings which inflict necessary consequences, in the form of diseases, on humans. This perspective is the most convincing for me, and calls on the responsibility of us all to work towards our own health in harmony with the healing regeneration of our earthly environment.
I will conclude with a passage by Georg Soldner, joint leader of the Medical Section at the Goetheanum, who writes:
“For veterinarians, corona viruses are part of daily life, but now the corona virus SARS-CoV 2 has crossed the barrier to humans…. Where do these apparently novel viruses come from and why did they develop? Interestingly enough, many of the viruses come from animals. The corona virus probably comes from the Javanese bat. So why do viruses from the animal kingdom become dangerous for humans? We are currently inflicting untold suffering on animals: Mass slaughter and experimentation on laboratory animals causes pain that the animal kingdom is helpless to bear. Can this suffering lead to consequences that alter viruses that are native to the animal organism? We are used to only looking at the physical and to seeing it as mostly separate from the mind and emotions. Research on intestinal flora, on the microbiome, which includes not only bacteria but also viruses, proves the opposite. This raises not only the microbiological question of the origin of the virus, but also the moral question of how to deal with the animal world. Rudolf Steiner pointed out these connections more than 100 years ago. Today it is up to us to investigate these relationships and to ask deeper questions in addition to scientific analysis”.