2020 started well enough with all of us in blissful ignorance and very scant mention in the news of a nasty respiratory virus which had apparently originated in Wuhan in China and appeared to be spreading fast. Last year we all greeted the new year in lockdown which in a curious way felt a lot easier than this year because we had no choice about whether to plan any trips outside our homes or not. In some ways it feels like the worst of all possible worlds right now. In theory as a triple vaccinated person I should feel safe, but yesterday I read somewhere that as many as one in twenty-five people are currently infected with the Omicron variant in London. So I’m once more restricting my activities, eschewing visits to the cinema or theatre, not booking up for any shows or exhibitions and not calling friends to suggest meeting up for lunch or dinner in a restaurant.

All of which has got me thinking about how and why I am making these ultra-cautious decisions and what is informing them.

And the conclusion that I’ve come to is that the sources of information which I need in order to make the best possible decisions are no longer the ones to which I would once have turned. Over the past two years I have gradually stopped listening to the news on the radio or television. Not long ago I bought a newspaper every day including the weekend editions. Now I just buy the Saturday Times but only because I like to read the culture section for the latest reviews about books, films and upcoming TV programmes. Before the pandemic, I really enjoyed watching news and discussion programmes like Question Time and the Andrew Marr show and would like the fact that I was following the conversations and debates about current topics and events. Now I can’t bear them. Why? Because I don’t want to be in a permanent state of agitation, anger or even despair (and not just about Covid 19).

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For Christmas as a stocking filler I gave my 11 year old grandson a book by Nick Sheridan called ‘Breaking News - How to Tell What’s Real from What’s Rubbish.’ I read it very quickly before I wrapped it up for him and it occurred to me that I would absolutely love to read an adult version along the same lines. The reason that I wanted Rory to read the book is because he’s growing up in a world of limitless and instantly accessible information. More than ever before he and his peers will need to make informed and intelligent decisions about what they are reading and whether it’s likely to be true or not. One chapter is called ‘Fake, Fib or Phoney and Sheridan quotes the time in 1938 when Orson Welles broadcast a story on radio about aliens landing on earth with a report apparently coming from the site of the alien invasion. Instead of realising that this was a spoof, thousands of people panicked and took to their cars to flee the apparent danger. Welles had to apologise to the listeners by saying that he had no idea that anyone would believe such a crazy story.

We can laugh about that prank, tut, shake our heads and say ‘how can people be so irrational?’ Or we can consider some of the things that people now believe about Covid and the vaccine programme. Some anti-vaxxers believe that the virus itself is a hoax designed to rob us of our rights and freedoms; that the vaccine is a mass innoculation programme designed by mad scientists and funded by Bill Gates to alter our very DNA; that the vaccine is unsafe, produced suspiciously swiftly and as a result is likely to cause dangerous side effects, especially if you’re pregnant; that the vaccine affects not only your sexual function but also renders you infertile. We can tut, shake our heads and say ‘how can people believe such a load of old twaddle’? Or we can try to understand how such conspiracy theories take hold, spread and become so attractive to so many people. 

Most of the beliefs that inform these widespread conspiracy theories start with distrust of  powerful institutions including the government, pharmaceutical companies and the mainstream media. But, hang on, haven’t I just said that I’ve started to question much of what I hear and read - so does this make me more or less vulnerable to the weird and whacky world of fake news? What can I do to protect myself so that I can get on with my life whilst staying safe and informed during what will very hopefully be the final stages of the pandemic?

This is how I am navigating my way through these muddy waters:

1. Seeking out and listening to scientists who present data in a clear and logical way. I have been watching the weekly reports from Dr. Tim Spector, an epidemiologist at King’s College Hospital who runs the Zoe Covid Study. These videos are on YouTube and he’s quite reassuringly boring and at the very least I feel that I am getting facts relatively free from any personal or political agenda.

2. Doing my best to recognise bias in which opinion is dressed up as fact. Here’s an example of what I mean from a headline by a prominent female journalist announcing the end of the pandemic in a tabloid newspaper: “The human cost of Covid curbs is now too great for us to accept. If Omicron, with its apparently mild symptoms becomes the predominant strain, life can return to normal.” You can see why many of her readers might agree that this is true but that doesn’t make it more than her personal opinion presented as fact.

3. I enjoy ‘doom-scrolling’ on Twitter but I treat everything I read on there with a massive pinch of salt until I have verified the source. There is useful information to be gleaned, but it’s helpful to be very sceptical until you understand where the information is coming from and what their agenda might be. Take this tweet which was on my timeline yesterday: One person is presently being treated in intensive care for Omicron in Scotland. One”. This garnered 18.5 thousand likes, so it was very popular despite being entirely false. It’s source was an historian who is now a commentator on GB News. Official Scottish government data showed that yesterday there were in fact 42 people in ICU being treated for Covid.

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4. I rarely like, comment or share anything that I read on social media except for our Super Troopers private Facebook group (over which I have editorial control). If I don’t leave too much of a footprint, the algorithms that run these platforms won’t start serving me similar content. In that way they can’t start to determine what I should read. Conspiracy theories grow huge by people ‘liking’ and ‘sharing’ disinformation and misinformation like snowballs gathering snow.

5. Finally I have sought out podcasts that I enjoy listening to in order to shine a light on stories that are in the news. I am aware of the human tendency to seek ‘echo chambers’ so that my opinions can be reflected back to me and I realise that this is true for some of the content that I find entertaining. However one of my favourites is the very dry sounding ‘Institute for Government’ Inside Briefing podcast which is intelligent, thought-provoking and run by three very bright women who talk a great deal of sense with a great deal of authority. I also like the political journalist Steve Richards whose ‘Rock n’ Roll Politics podcast is like a very entertaining and erudite after dinner speech which I listen to every Monday evening whilst I am preparing my supper.

You and I grew up at a time when the news was disseminated via two daily bulletins at 6 and 9 o’ clock on the BBC and ITV and there were seven national newspapers to choose from: four tabloid ‘red tops’ - The Daily Mail, The Sun, The Express and The Mirror,  and three broadsheets - The Times, The Telegraph and The Guardian. There was no internet, no twenty-four hour rolling news channels, no choice of radio or TV stations, no Facebook, no YouTube, no Twitter, no Instagram, no Tik-Tok and no podcasts on every subject under the sun. 

Little wonder that we have become somewhat discombobulated by this pandemic which is the first event in my lifetime to affect every person on earth at a time when there is information (and misinformation) flying at us from every direction. Apart from a couple of old ‘Covidiots’ like Piers Corbyn and Gillian McKeith, our generation has done pretty well at making considered and intelligent decisions to keep ourselves safe over the past two years. We’ve accepted and understood the need to limit our social contacts, we’ve kept wearing masks, we’ve maintained our distance, and we’ve offered our arms up gratefully and willingly for two vaccinations and our booster shots. Good for us, and now one last push and hopefully by springtime we should finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

Tricia x 

Upcoming Event Information:

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Teatime with Tricia - Life Armour with Dr Christie Lewis and Marishka Dunlop

Day: Tuesday 25th January 

Time: 4pm 

Link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/83768629598?pwd=eXpWdnRHZHVVV2xSalo0eFN2QS9MUT09

Meeting ID (if needed): 837 6862 9598

Password (if needed): LOOKFAB

Life Armour is a brand of nourishing supplements designed to protect against the stresses and strains of modern life. It was founded by Marishka Dunlop, who spent 18 years in skincare innovation roles and noticed how the pace of modern life was impacting her own wellbeing and that of so many women she spoke to.

Dr Christie Lewis is an NHS GP and a Private Health & Life Coach. Her aim is to help others achieve more joy, balance and happiness in their lives by focusing on the key areas of health, including; nutrition, exercise, sleep, stress and happiness.

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Film Club - The Lost Daughter

Available on Netflix 

Day:  Friday 21st January

Time: 4pm 

Link:https://us02web.zoom.us/j/86109288705?pwd=TUgzQW5IK0VnUGI2MGdtb0FQN3hxZz09

Meeting ID (if needed): 861 0928 8705

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