Like many people living in or around Totnes in Devon, David, who is in his 70s, has his own theories about coronavirus and its origins. Sitting in the armchair of his house, he says the pandemic is a secret plot to impose a totalitarian world government and a nefarious effort to crush freedom. He scrolls through Facebook, which he recently signed up to, to show many with similar beliefs.
David came to many of these ideas recently. When the pandemic hit, he started looking for answers. “I’m friends with a few people who are active in researching what is going on. I quickly made contact with others putting posts on the internet.”
He is strongly opposed to 5G, believing mobile phone signals either transmit the virus or reduce our defences to it, and has said he would not accept a vaccine as it would involve injecting nanoparticles into the body that would allow people to be controlled.
While such views are not the norm, they can be found around the country, and MPs have warned that misinformation about the pandemic is spreading “virulently” because the UK still lacks a law to regulate social media. It is a problem that has come into sharp focus since the announcement that a Covid vaccine could be within reach, with trials finding a new jab to be 90% effective.
Concern has been raised about the uptake of such a vaccine, or false rumours that might deter people from getting it. “Vaccine misinformation has been out there ever since the first vaccines were made,” said England’s deputy chief medical officer Prof Jonathan Van-Tam on Monday. “And it is exactly that, misinformation.”
People in Totnes are known for questioning “the mainstream narrative”, says its mayor, Jacqi Hodgson. The take-up for one dose of the MMR vaccine by five-year-olds was 78%, according to figures for 2018-19, well below the national target of 95%. Last year, campaigners persuaded the council to put a moratorium on the rollout of 5G after being inspired by the conspiracy theory that it is bad for your health.
Since the start of the pandemic, leaflets about the dangers of wearing masks have been slipped through doors, a weekly meeting takes place to discuss theories about the origins of the virus and since August protesters have regularly appeared in the town centre.
Hodgson says that some of those handing out leaflets encouraging people not to wear masks have become pushier. “They have been pushing leaflets on to people’s hands. One person insisted on giving me a leaflet and I said it was reckless not to encourage people to wear masks.”
“People have been gathering more and more [since the start of the pandemic] … They were holding rallies on Saturday afternoon in the market square and upsetting the market traders.”
The local council has even struggled to pedestrianise a part of the high street due to a backlash from those who believe the pandemic is a hoax.
Peter Shearn, the editor of Totnes Pulse, a community not-for-profit magazine, said: “There is a Facebook group for locals and it has become very aggressive and bitey, with people arguing. What has happened is people who were behind QAnon narratives [a global movement claiming there is a secret satanic network of child-abusing politicians and celebrities] hold hands with the very far left. It’s sort of gone full circle.”
One person who does not believe in wearing masks is Steve, who works as a psychotherapist. “Masks are used to maintain fear as it is obviously not a pandemic,” he says.
“When you break the statistics down … the average age of death from the virus is over life expectancy. Mental health suffers, the economy is destroyed and we know what happens with economic downturns: people die.”
A distrust of the scientific and governmental consensus on the pandemic can be seen nationally. A May study, funded by Oxford Health BRC, showed 60% of adults believe to some extent that the government was misleading the public about the cause of the virus. “We’re not just battling the virus,” said the WHO director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in August. “We’re also battling the trolls and conspiracy theorists that push misinformation and undermine the outbreak response.”
Earlier in the summer, residents of Totnes and others in the South Hams area, the district the town is in, reported having leaflets dropped through their doors promoting the idea that mask-wearing was detrimental to health. They argued that wearing masks was linked to too much carbon dioxide in the blood and a weakened immune system.
Carole Boulanger, a consultant nurse from Royal Devon and Exeter NHS foundation trust, said that coronavirus was a “serious illness” that “people need to take seriously”.
“There are people who think it’s manufactured and there is some big plot, but we have Covid-19 in the area, in the country and in the world. It is causing a lot of illness and mortality for the population,” she added.
While the south-west has the lowest proportion of deaths of any area of England, infection rates have been rising in Devon since September, with 736 new cases between 1 and 7 November. There have been 5,935 cases in total.
Boulanger said that there was frustration in the south-west because infection numbers were low, and people working in the area’s vast tourist industry had experienced a huge hit to businesses. However, she added there should also be caution due to the high number of older people in the area who are at risk from the virus.
She said that there was also limited capacity in hospitals and the area would need to deal with normal winter pressures, as well as the virus this year, which meant people should take it seriously.
“Most people I am in contact with have either got it or had it … or their relatives are in the intensive care unit with it. That is a poignant way of appreciating that this illness is fact and not a hoax.”