Myth versus logic in the time of Covid-19

This is the text of my summer 2020 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a part of Prospect.

With Covid-19 now back on the rise, including out here on the islands, and shutdowns once again becoming a reality for many of us, it’s timely to re-visit the themes of the column, originally written at the back end of May. The column looked at the conspiracy theories over 5G masts, while pointing out that fear over technological developments is not a new phenomenon.

Few have any living memory of times as extraordinary as the ones we are living in under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.

I don’t know whether the post-World War I flu epidemic of 1918 brought about any particular conspiracy theories, although I suspect that the more unusual the surrounding events, the stranger the theories that gain circulation.

In the early weeks of the pandemic and lockdown, one such theory directly connected 5G mobile technology to the spread of COVID-19.

This led to attacks on mobile mast installations – idiotically, but poignantly, ones that had no 5G capability – and also to the harassment of telecoms workers who were going about their jobs.

It was therefore good to see Scotland’s First Minister take the time to praise telecoms workers as key workers.

The contribution that Prospect members are making right across the UK to ensure that people can stay connected and working has been a major factor in slowing the spread of the virus and, in the process, helping our wellbeing to hold up.

Uneasy relationship

Interestingly the telephone has always been a bit of a bellwether for our relationship with technology.

The British Medical Journal reported – in 1889 – on concerns that spending long periods on the telephone could cause ‘nervous excitability, with buzzing noises in the ear, giddiness and neuralgic pains’.  

Radio broadcasting, which was developed in the early 1900s and shares a common technological root with modern cell phones, was thought to cause sickness. Coming up to date, apart from our cellphones, there is similar noise about our home Wi-Fi and smart meters.

Many do not understand the technology we rely on, and which has become central to how we organise and live in our world. This has led us to develop an uneasy and unsettled relationship with something whose ubiquitous invisibility makes it an easy target when things go wrong. There is a lot more work to do to settle that relationship and ensure emerging technologies work for people. One such organisation doing good work in this field is the Ada Lovelace Institute.

Furthermore, with mobile technology continually evolving – 3G in the 2000s, 4G in the 2010s, 5G now and 6G already being spoken about – there is always room to find new grounds for conspiracy or a fresh angle.

The less easy the relationship, the more easy it is to distrust something – not least at a time of a generalised lack of trust.

Prospect members know there is indeed no magic about mobile technology. It is more a case of ‘observation and logic’, as Ramesh cutely puts it in the end-of-year school show at the close of series two of BBC drama The A Word (which I have been catching up with during the lockdown). Both are qualities in short supply during the pandemic.

The increasingly tortuous way we use language doesn’t help. It is evident that viruses cannot spread over radio waves; they spread by human contact.

Both government guidance and a statement from the four mobile operators have declared: ‘There is no scientific evidence of any link between 5G and coronavirus’. However, this doesn’t seem to be enough to persuade either the conspiracy theorists or those vulnerable to their theories.

Meanwhile, especially for those working from home more than usual, it is good to remind ourselves to unplug outside working hours. Giving ourselves downtime is valuable for our own mental health and helps our colleagues do the same.

Stay safe – and do encourage anyone you know who is not a union member to join one.

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