The Mayor of London’s surprise drone and firework display on New Year’s Eve featured the image of a muted microphone, familiar to users of video conferencing services as a tiny icon at the bottom of a computer screen. It appeared in gigantic form above the deserted O2 Arena, along with words many Londoners will have recognized: You’re on mute! – the shout out to someone starting to speak on a call without un-muting their microphone.
If it was intended to be a shared joke about life under lockdown, it wasn’t one designed for key workers who have not been working remotely – nor it seems for anyone watching south of the river Thames. In the context of the more far-reaching effects of the pandemic, it was actually a perturbing reminder of the ways in which we have all been silenced.
The display hovered and sparkled over hospitals experiencing the beginning of the terrible second wave of the pandemic, hospitals staffed by doctors and nurses under injunction not to speak to reporters or on social media about what was unfolding in the wards.
As the second wave broke over London and rapidly moved outwards into other regions, health workers, pushed beyond endurance, began to defy the ban and to speak out as individuals or through groups like the Doctors’ Association UK and EveryDoctor. These accounts began to pick up more followers and to connect NHS frontline staff directly with the public.
One almost immediate effect of this kind of information circulating more freely was to put much greater pressure on the BBC and other MSM to report more accurately on what was/is happening and to begin to challenge official government press accounts. As a result the sane voices of Independent SAGE – the group of scientists, public health experts, behavioural scientists and statisticians that has been broadcasting COVID analysis and advice on YouTube weekly since May 2020 – finally broke through to the MSM in January 2021.
Then teachers found their collective voice – tested to the limit by government incompetence and dishonesty through three gruelling school terms and finding themselves about to be offered up as the next group of sacrificial heroes. An online meeting called by the National Education Union to discuss the chaotic situation facing schools at the beginning of January, was watched live online by an unprecedented 400,000 people.
British Gas workers, on strike against the imposition of new work contracts enforcing longer hours and with no increase in pay, have been making short films of their individual protests, involving their families and their British Gas vans, and then releasing them to growing audiences on social media.
In an ostensible response to the UK reaching an official count of 100,000 Covid deaths, the Prime Minister adopted a tone of contrition at a 10 Downing Street press briefing and aired a new sensitivity to the grief so many people have experienced. He apologised. It was a well-timed piece of theatre. The following day’s headline pictures of Johnson’s head bowed in what he likes to refer to as sorrow will perhaps stand in for the expression of collective grief for a while, for some, but the same voice can still be heard online advocating the herd immunity strategy that led directly to so many deaths. Johnson’s chummy words urged people to just take it on the chin.
Closer to home, and when it’s not raining, my neighbours have been gathering in a small group in the afternoons since the summer. They stand well apart with cups of tea to talk. Their voices make the constantly shifting kaleidoscopic pattern that is conversation. It carries all experience and in these winter months is visible on the air.
This piece was originally published in the February edition of Splinters.