For two years, psychologists have been observing the effects of the SARS-CoV-2 (Covid) pandemic. Alongside the illness and death, many have also observed the psychological effects of lockdown in the loss of jobs, fear, social constraints and depression. One psychologist recently focused on a little-mentioned psychological aspect of the pandemic—as time moves on—the social dimension of fear. Matthias Desmet, Professor in Clinical Psychology at Ghent University, who also holds a master’s degree in statistics, puts forward some interesting points that offer some insight as to what is going on behind the scenes.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Like most around the world, Desmet was affected by the first global-wide fear of the coronavirus and listened attentively to the statistical information given on the mass media. By May 2020, he says, he realised that something was wrong with the statistical reports, and that the death rate, concerning as it was, was greatly over-estimated. For example, he states that the Imperial College London predicted that 80,000 people in Sweden would die within months, but only 6000 died in the period specified. Similar errors were made in relation to other countries; for example, over half a million deaths were predicted in the short term for Britain by Neil Ferguson—also greatly mistaken. While the statistics were presented as a result of “scientific analysis”, they were wrong. Yet no admissions of error were made. Wondering what was going on, Desmet turned from his statistical analysis to a more psychological analysis of the events. Why were so many people listening to such evident errors and outlandish predictions?
Desmet looked at the times in both a psychological and historical perspective. He said he came to recognise that what was facing us was what psychologists term “mass formation”, that is, a phenomenon that affects groups, societies and even countries. This term arose out of the study of social psychology in the past century, where entire nations and groups of nations bought into a single narrative at the same time. For this process of mass formation to happen, Desmet said there had to be four conditions:
♦ Widespread social problems and social alienation. Depression was the primary disorder affecting the West—according to the World Health Organisation—and this was evident before Covid hit.
♦ A lack of meaning-making. With the loss of religious or culturally shared stories, people look elsewhere for meaning, or stay in a generally unhappy state when they have lost a sense of meaning.
♦ Arising from the previous two points, there is a free-floating anxiety, a sense of unease without any awareness of its cause. If you see a lion coming at you, you get a specific fear. But fear arising out of the sense of lack of meaning and social disconnectedness remains diffuse, unfocused, ever-present, without any specific representation. It is, Desmet says, an extremely distressing state, and sufferers look for something to connect their anxiety to.
♦ Free-floating frustration and discontent arising from the previous three points. There is widespread unease and nowhere to direct it.
Suddenly, Desmet explains, a new narrative is given on all the media platforms of the world—we are told that a very dangerous virus can threaten our lives—and we are galvanised with fear. Suddenly the free-floating anxiety finds a clear representation of its fear, which it could not find before, in the alienated, angst-filled state of existence. There is also a global invitation to come together to fight it and this creates social bonds, gives meaning to daily life. There is a high level of connectedness, in the sense of fighting a heroic battle against the object of anxiety. New rituals arise—for rituals create a sense of unity. Desmet says that no matter how absurd the ritual, people are only too willing to participate in it to show how much they belong to a group. So, when people in Britain stood in their front yards to applaud the NHS, they felt united in a sense of common purpose.
At the same time as Desmet was analysing the fear response, the British investigative journalist Laura Dodsworth was doing the same thing, which she discusses in her book A State of Fear (2021). She found that British behavioural psychology teams were carefully shaping group behaviour. Dodsworth is pro-vaccination but she was astounded to learn how public responses to the Covid situation were carefully manipulated, steered away from questioning. The expressions, “We’re all in this together” and “Don’t be a granny killer”, were British-crafted slogans, let loose to permeate the media around the world. Dodsworth asks, “Why do governments use fear?” She explained that a meta-analysis of its use clearly shows that “messages with fear are nearly twice as effective as messages without fear”. The pandemic, while real, led into generating and maintaining fear, not only about the virus, but also as a means of continuing social and political control. She says the British government took advice from several behavioural insight teams: the Home Office’s Research, Information and Communications Unit; the Rapid Response Unit, based in Number 10 and the Cabinet Office; the Counter Disinformation Cell, an intelligence, cyber and security agency; the 77th Brigade, an army unit combining media and psychological operations; and the Independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), a sub-group of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. Perhaps the most significant of these groups, the SPI-B, was to provide political leaders, media, and social groups with the same “line” of thought.
PROFESSOR Desmet noted that after the continual repetition of announcements over 592 days, the nature of society changed. He compared this phenomenon of mass formation to a form of mass hypnosis. As in individual cases of hypnosis, people display little regard for other measures of wellbeing. The focus is specifically on a particular thing. For example, in the daily reports, laden with fear, and of “flattening the curve”, there was little or no discussion of how to build up the immune system; nor was there discussion of developing research into other ways of treating the virus. The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) became the arbiter of what was “correct” research and what was not.
Through the lens of mass formation, Desmet said that there was a narrow focus on just a singular goal—safety from Covid—which prevented many from noticing other real-world harms and consequences. It is for this same reason, he added, that skyrocketing mental health issues, drug abuse and suicides have been relatively ignored. If it isn’t directly about Covid, then it isn’t so much of an issue. Desmet noted that this was true of the response in many countries.
This hypnotic concentration on one thing only—on the constant media Covid narrative—led people to watch the daily reports on television read by medical bureaucrats. The bureaucratic arbiter of medical information, the TGA, was suddenly endowed with godlike status. Along with this total focus, there also develops a second mechanism under mass formation, what Desmet calls “fascistic intolerance” to competing outlooks. This intolerance is a natural self-defence manoeuvre which saves the psyche from having to confront a reality that contradicts its new purpose-filled state. Challenging the current reality would bring people back to the state of initial anxiety and discontent that laid the ground for mass formation in the first place. And people in general do not want to be shifted from the sense of community, meaning and purpose which they previously lacked—to go back to the old reality. Desmet says the resistance is quite fierce. So entrenched is their fear of Covid, he says, that people generally cannot process studies and statistics that question their verities—question the efficacy of masks, lockdowns, vaccines, or present alternative treatments.
If it seems that many are living under a sort of hypnosis, unable to consider other realities, Desmet says it is because they are. He refers to the work of Gustav Le Bon, who wrote a prescient book on mass psychology in 1895 entitled Psychologie des Foules (literally, The Psychology of Crowds). Le Bon said:
an individual immersed for some length of time in a crowd soon finds himself—either in consequence of magnetic influence given out by the crowd or from some other cause of which we are ignorant—in a special state, which much resembles the state of fascination in which the hypnotized individual finds himself in the hands of the hypnotizer.
When people are under hypnosis, their field of attention is so narrow that operations cutting through their skin cause no pain. Attempts to draw them further afield meet with simple resistance and the hypnotised person ignores any invitation to consider other issues. You can say “There is a lion about to attack you,” and the person will ignore you. When the scientific results of well-known researchers are brought for consideration before the media or others under mass formation or hypnosis, the results are ignored, and the subject is changed. The media narrative claims studies on other treatments are not scientific, even when done by renowned scientists according to strictest scientific methods. The fact that the drug ivermectin, used in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, with a population of 240 million people, virtually eliminated Covid, is sidelined or deleted from consideration, appearing in few news outlets. This phenomenal result in Uttar Pradesh should be cause for rejoicing, yet it causes unease as if a frightening taboo term has been uttered.
The successful treatments of Covid in its early stages, especially with ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, among several others, are a new reality which challenge the hypnotic media narrative and would require a reassessment. It is interesting that those who report ivermectin’s positive results such as Professor Thomas Borody, Dr Tess Lawrie, Dr Ryan Cole and Dr Pierre Kori, among other researchers, are not anti-vaccination—and state so openly—they simply ask questions of our current set of vaccinations and pose alternatives whose efficacy has become clear as time moves on. They present evidence-based studies to show the effectiveness of other means of treatment.
Ivermectin, the anti-parasitic, anti-viral drug, has been used to wipe out many conditions such as river blindness (onchocerciasis), strongyloidiasis, scabies and other viral illnesses. For this its developers, William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura, won the Nobel Prize in 2015. They never claimed it cured Covid. This was found “along the way” in 2020 by doctors who were desperate to find some treatment in the absence of early treatment protocols. In trying this safe broad-spectrum anti-viral, doctors were surprised at its effectiveness in treating Covid, especially if given in the early stages. They followed the science and began to do specific studies. Despite the evidence (which the media narrative dismissed as “not enough” or “not recommended” by the TGA and FDA), the results continued to show effectiveness. Professor Borody, a researcher with arguably higher qualifications than the medical bureaucrats who were dealing out “best medical advice”, himself a Nobel Prize winner, was on media platforms for a short while, explaining how effective ivermectin is. However, as the date of vaccination release got closer, the interest went cold.
Among many medical professionals and researchers, the interest has not gone cold. More than 5200 doctors and scientists have signed the “The Physicians Declaration”, which criticises policy-makers for their “one-size-fits-all” Covid treatment strategy, even stating that such restrictions result in “needless illness and death”. Discussion of their scientific questions regarding alternative treatments has now reached the point of taboo. This degree of turning away is not scientific. The understanding of Covid is evolving and by no means settled. The media ignores this, directing fierce resistance at those who question the dominant narrative, and creating the straw man of the “anti-vaxxer”. The researchers who explore alternatives are not anti-vaccination but scientific questioners, an important distinction.
Robert Kennedy Jr’s The Real Anthony Fauci (2021) is a comprehensive piece of investigative journalism, uncovering the suppression of those scientists who have questioned the main narrative. It is not anti-vaccination, but asks why so many research papers on alternative treatments for Covid have been suppressed. The role of some major pharmaceutical players would be a shocking revelation to those with a more benign view of the universe.
DESMET says mass formation can lead to a lack of awareness of dangers other than that of Covid: deaths from hunger (due to lockdown), deaths from other illnesses, psychological ill-health, the loss of jobs. Individual rights are sacrificed to the “social” good—there is a moral politicisation of policies, all for the collective—except for those who question the current findings. Looking at past exemplars in history, Desmet says mass formation is the precursor to a totalitarian society. Mass formation needs an enemy, and what more effective enemy than a virus whose variants will never end, and which necessitates political control and digital passports?
Researchers of mass formation like Desmet find that usually 30 per cent get “hypnotised” and go along with the dominant narrative, 40 per cent go along with them and do not wish to resist, and 30 per cent resist. Those in the latter group do not belong to any one religious or political group. Thus, in Australia, we see sacked workers, left-wing, right-wing, Catholics with statues of Our Lady, Byron Bay new-agers and people of all faiths and ethnic groups, appearing at freedom rallies in all states. Both vaccinated and unvaccinated protested against vaccine mandates around Australia in late November 2021. It was evident on these occasions that many of the current 95 per cent who are vaccinated are unhappily vaccinated. No provision is made for counting the coerced vaccinated in the statistical overview.
Desmet states that it is generally those in higher positions in society who are more susceptible to mass formation and assist the transmission of the dominant narrative. Many people have recently asked him—does this state of mass formation ever dissipate? Desmet says history shows that, while it may take years, the “spell” of the mass fades and some reality does eventually seep in. He suggests that talking to those under such mass hypnosis in a thoughtful, deliberate way does work at times. As does some gentle humour aimed at the erroneous statistics, exaggerated claims and rituals. He says it is important to continue opposition to the dominant narrative in an era of mass formation, because once such voices are silenced, the coercion increases.
When history looks back on periods of such mass formation, such as occurred in the Soviet and Nazi periods, the opposing voices acquire a significance beyond their numbers. Voices like that of Desmet do not deny Covid, nor are they anti-vaccination, they simply question the scientific facts of the vaccines, seek scientific discussion, and present evidence-based studies of alternative treatments. They state what scientists should welcome—that the science is not settled, that new developments are occurring all the time. There are other narratives beyond the dominant one deserving of scrutiny and the truly scientific approach is to step beyond this dominant narrative, to question, debate, discuss and refine our knowledge and understanding.
Wanda Skowronska is a psychologist and author who lives and works in Sydney. Her most recent book is Catholic Converts from Down Under … and All Over