Catholic World Report

COVID and the Fearful State

In her review of a 2021 book by British journalist Laura Dodsworth, Anna Farrow highlights disturbing evidence of governments using our primal panic response to push pandemic policies.

Police and a protester at the October 2020 Stand Up X (Anti Coronavirus & Mask) Protests in Trafalgar Square, London. (Image: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona/Unsplash.com)
Long before David Attenborough brought his soothing voice to the explication of animal behaviour for the BBC Life series, the North American television public had been introduced to the majesty and oddities of the natural world through Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. I remember lying on my stomach in my grandparent’s living room watching programs about lions and eagles, the Great Barrier Reef, the reindeer of Lapland. Footage from those hours of Sunday viewing flooded back to me in the first weeks of COVID lockdown. I watched my friends and neighbors react to media messaging like herds of grazing animals suddenly elevating necks, pricking up ears, rippling hides in response to a predatory shadow or scent. A threat had been detected. Anxiety came in waves. I was not immune to fear, of course. In early April 2020 I messaged a group of friends, “Raise your hand if you have experienced this: You haven’t left the house for four days, you go out to do groceries and when you come back you think, ‘Is that a little tickle in my throat? Why do I suddenly need to cough?’”To a woman, they all raised their bitmoji’s hands.

As those first weeks of lockdown extended into months of restrictions, we learned more about the virus and about the threat it did or didn’t pose. Yet I grew increasingly concerned at how fearful and herd-like we had become. Many seemed to be stuck in panic mode. How and why had so many become so very, very frightened?

In her recently published book, A State of FearBritish photographer and journalist Laura Dodsworth provides penetrating answers. She analyzes her government’s use of behavioural psychology in its attempt to direct the public response to the threat of SARS-CoV-2. Dodsworth asserts the government “weaponised” fear and, indeed, weaponized behavioural psychology. To everyone she interviewed, she posed the question: “Is it ethical to frighten people ‘for the greater good?’”

Fear is an important response to perceived threat that elicits physiological changes in the body. Fear does several things, including suppressing rational thinking and heightening suggestibility. This controlling emotion has long been recognized as a powerful tool in the manipulation of human behaviour. Marketers, religious leaders, the media, and politicians have all deployed it. Fear, notoriously in both the domestic and the political arena, encourages compliance.

The lockdowns implemented in the spring of 2020 were an unprecedented response to a public health crisis, and Western politicians were uncertain how their citizens would respond. How could they ensure compliance? Dodsworth says the British government took advice from behavioural insight teams. Five groups played a role in shaping and implementing the government response:

Dodsworth outlines techniques used by the government, including “seeding” and “foot-in-the-door.” These two concepts will be familiar to students of Psychology or Marketing 101. The former involves planting an idea like a seed to prime clients for a sale – or citizens for the next pandemic restriction. For example, masks were originally introduced to the public mind as not-fit-for-purpose; but by bringing them into the discussion, even negatively, the idea of mask-wearing had been seeded. When masks were reintroduced as an important tool in the fight against the virus, the proposal was no longer novel.

“Foot-in-the door” works on the principle that, once one has agreed to the first request, it becomes more difficult to refuse the next and bigger request. Confinement for “two weeks to flatten the curve” was accepted by the majority. It had a definite timeline and seemed manageable. But it was soon followed by new demands, by endless months of business and school closures, restrictions on movement, locked churches, and isolation.

Dodsworth argues that behavioural science is no longer occupied primarily with predicting human behaviour. Its mandate now is to influence and direct behavior. And governments have taken a keen interest in its power to do so.

In Britain the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), unofficially known as the Nudge Unit, was set up in 2010 under Prime Minister David Cameron. BIT is now a profit-making company with offices in the US, France, Australia, and Canada.

Canada not only hosts a BIT office in Toronto; it has its very own unit. A Toronto Star article in February 2021 noted that Dr. Teresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, had referenced a behavioural insight team located within the Privy Council Office. It is called the Impact and Innovation Unit and was set up in 2017. The Star’s Susan Delacourt remarks that the role the Impact Unit played in Canada’s Covid messaging is a “social-science experiment” one that “may have given government clues on how to modify citizen’s behaviour for other big global issues – such as climate change, for instance.”

Prior to the pandemic, the “nudge” might be quite mundane: a prompt to eat our five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, reduce food waste, or submit our taxes on time. In COVID times these teams are orchestrating more dramatic campaigns to generate full compliance with public health measures, and providing politicians with talking points in defence of these measures. Their campaigns frequently stoke fear and scapegoat the non-compliant.

In illustration, Dodsworth quotes from a discussion paper presented to the Scientific Advisory Group by its pandemic behaviours subgroup on March 23, 2020: “The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.”

At the outset, it was the unmasked, the quarantine-breakers, the youth congregating at house parties, and the religious who were the “covidiots” responsible for driving numbers up and “killing granny.” A few months ago, an op-ed published in Israel’s Ha’aretz even described ultra-Orthodox Jews who do not follow State rules as “Covid insurgents” and “terrorists.”

Today, about three months after publication of her book, Dodsworth has proved prescient in her prediction that the unvaccinated would be condemned as “reckless, socially irresponsible or stupid.”

She is a lockdown critic. Some may find far-fetched her comparison of the manipulation of public opinion by the government to the behaviour of a cult. But this is not a book about the ethics or utility of lockdowns. It is a book that asks important questions about the negative, long term effects of a campaign of fear deliberately conducted by the government. It queries the part played in that campaign by the media, both mainstream and social. And it probes the role of unelected “psychocrats” in the design and implementation of the campaign.

A State of Fear also raises the “why” question – to what end was this campaign directed? Dodsworth does not think it was only about handling COVID. She thinks that by exacerbating the fear around COVID governments (or those who advise them) are building compliance muscle-memory in citizens, perhaps to prepare them for future sacrifices that will be demanded in a war against climate change.

Her call for a public debate should not go unheeded. She has demonstrated that “the behavioural science framework for making the population comply with being locked down involved powerful techniques which deserve public consultation.” Her own fears for the future, if no such debate takes place, are fears I share. But along with those memories of Sunday afternoons stretched out in front of Animal Kingdom listening to Marlin Perkins, there is another memory that comes back to me, in a different voice.

In 1978, at his Inauguration Mass, St. John Paul II began his papacy with the clarion call that would become the hallmark of his papal ministry: “Be not afraid!” Later, in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, he would remark that in a certain sense this was “an exhortation addressed to all people, an exhortation to conquer fear in the present world situation.”

John Paul II knew from his experience in Poland what it meant to live in a State of fear. He knew also, from his experience with God, that there is no reason for us to be in a state of fear.

“Have no fear of what you yourselves have created, have no fear of all that man has produced, and that every day is becoming more dangerous for him! Finally, have no fear of yourselves,” he advised.

“Peoples and nations of the entire world need to hear these words. Their conscience needs to grow in the certainty that Someone exists who holds in His hands the destiny of this passing world; Someone who holds the keys to death and the netherworld; Someone who is the Alpha and Omega of human history – be it the individual or collective history. And this Someone is Love.”

(Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared on the Convivium website and is republished here by kind permission of the author and the editors of Convivium.)


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About Anna Farrow 1 Article
Anna Farrow is Executive Director of the English Speaking Catholic Council, a lay organization which acts as a coordinating forum for English-speaking Catholics in Quebec.

21 Comments

  1. I don’t understand the “fear” over Covid-19. Something, usually a different something but perhaps the same, is going to take all of us out. We are human. We will all die. So, instead of “fear” why not exercise prudence? Prudence helps us determine which risks we need to take for physical and mental health. The danger has always been out there in the form of car accidents, diseases, mass shootings, etc., but we don’t think about those things every time we leave the house. Because of the publicity and scare tactics of the government, we are all thinking about the pandemic constantly. STOP and just be prudent, exercise normal care and live your life as joyfully as possible. We, as Catholics, should be aware of our mortality every minute of every day. “No one knows the day or the hour.” Be prepared as we continue to enjoy our lives each day as a gift from God.

  2. I know a young father who probably because of Covid related delays affecting the hospital had a malignant tumor rupture before his surgery could be performed. He has a terminal diagnosis now.
    That’s something else to be afraid of. How many more cases like this are there and lives shortened by postponing treatment?

  3. Excellent article. It sure would be nice to see the Church take the lead on pushing for Liberty, personal and religious rights rather than staying Woke and on the sidelines. These ‘mask fascists’ will RUN OVER the Church once they have a completely obedient set of lemmings. The Church’s influence and leadership has been woefully absent throughout this power grab – it’s pathetic.

  4. Thank you, Ms. Farrow, for highlighting these important questions.

    The context you provide makes sense of the past 18 nonsensical months.

  5. I have read that 5 times as many young people have died from suicide and drug abuse than have died from Covid. That is a death toll someone on the crazed left should pay for. It didnt have to happen. This disease was NEVER as dangerously fatal as it was cracked up to be. I am not afraid. Period. Nor do I care what the political collaborators on the left think, say or feel about the danger of covid. Had covid. Am not dead. Life is too important to put in a box. The Baltimore catechism says the soul is more important then the body. But you would never know it from the choices the church hierarchy has made during this event. Today my church went back to “requesting” people wear masks in church. Are we planning to do this for year?? TWO?? Or are we just waiting for medicine to advance so that nobody ever again dies from anything?? Disgraceful.

  6. Ms. Farrow–Thank you for your article which was clear, truthful and encouraging.
    It takes courage to en-courage Courage. Thank you so very much for your own True Courage and your Deep Faith. And Laura Dodsworth, if you are listening, the same thanks goes also to you!

  7. The story that governments controls through sophisticated means including psychological departments etc. is a fig leaf attempting to cover the reality of their modus operandi which is as it has always been , brute force and violence. The reality is the governments would prefer you believe them to be deceitful manipulators rather than what they truly are, because as bad as that is, it is an improvement

  8. Funny how COVID vaccine resistance has developed into an ideological identity marker and is policed for certain adherence by one’s media bubble echo chamber and reference groups. Outwardly many maintain this appearance of consistency in opposing vaccination but precisely because of fear of the virus especially its deadly varian mutation, many have secretly obtained vaccination even asking the vaccine providers to hide their identity and not let their reference group – friends, neighbors, church, political party, even family – know they got vaccinated. They are choosing hypocrisy because they realize they’ve been duped by non-scientist and non-medical but political and ideological pundits and policy makers. Enough about fear!

  9. Shame to see The Catholic World Report pushing anti-Covid conspiracies. The statement “In illustration, Dodsworth quotes from a discussion paper presented to the Scientific Advisory Group by its pandemic behaviours subgroup on March 23, 2020: “The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.” For the sake of clarity, March 23, 2020 is a full year and 4 months ago. Long before the full effects of the Covid pandemic have played out. As journalists, you are supposed to weigh up both sides. This is a blatant anti-Covid, anti-government article. Shame on you for falling into the anti all things covid juggernaut. Very sad to see previously good Catholic news reporting gone so far off track. I can’t take you seriously anymore.

    • Very bad that CWR is “catering to the base” and not serving the widest community possible with truth and clarity. CWR in its reporting and choice of topics to cover takes up the agenda and talking points of the GOP rather than the magisterium of the Catholic Church.

      • “…talking points of the GOP…”

        And yet the author is from eastern Canada.

        There are certainly “talking points” here. That is, in your comment.

    • “Shame to see The Catholic World Report pushing anti-Covid conspiracies.”

      How so? You’re telling us at CWR “shame” after what has been going on with governments, governors, the CDC, WHO, Fauci, etc., etc., for the past 16 months? Goodness.

  10. Fantastic read Anna, thank you so much for reviewing this book and the ideas held within it. Agreed, her call for public debate must be headed! (from your neighbour on the second floor)

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