During the COVID-19 pandemic LSE MSc Media student Nabeel Khan lived in five countries: the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, the United States, and for a brief visit, Turkey. In this article he reports on how the response to the pandemic was unique in each, based on politics of the government, as well as the severity of each nation’s outbreak. The country he spent the majority of the pandemic in was the Netherlands.
I was searching for ‘micro-histories’ to document on my camera: hidden and untold stories that went against dominant and hegemonic narratives and that could only be spontaneous. In the middle of central park in The Hague, The Netherlands, I saw a man building a large igloo. As I approached him holding a block of ice, he caught me off-guard when he said he had recently ended a hunger strike that lasted 10 days, and his organs started failing.
He said that he had abandoned his home, his job working as a consultant in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, a six-figure salary, and he decided to live in protest of the Dutch government and state. During his time working for the government, he said that he uncovered a conspiracy that had made it clear that they were “planning a genocide in slow motion”. According to him, the pandemic was a plan to keep the elite growing richer, the virus was created in a lab and released for population reduction, and the vaccines were there to lower our immunity to the new variants. He said he had undergone a “kundalini awakening”, which drove him to the realisation that everyone around him was going to die, and that the “elites” were waging “a spiritual war against God”.
The man in the igloo was one of the many wild encounters from a very peculiar period living in the Netherlands. For the first time in the country’s modern history, the government imposed a night curfew from 9pm to 5am, a near-total lockdown, lasting from October 2020 till March 2021. The second major upcoming event was the Dutch General Elections. The combination of these two events led to an eruption of protests from across the political spectrum that continued for months. It was no coincidence that they took place in The Hague, dubbed the city of peace and justice, yet the city of endless protest.
I had documented the sentiments of a vast array of protesters, from anti-vaxxers, anti-globalists, people on the Far Right, the Far Left, and everything in-between. In this blog post, I’m recording a few observations from my experience documenting the riots, relating to journalism, politics, and society during the pandemic, applicable to Europe and beyond.
During times of crises, the Global is only relevant to inform the Local
There is an ideal that global news reporting would make citizens informed and less biased in our perception and world-views. The opposite was often true.
We often notice in others what we lack within ourselves. This classic psychological projection could encapsulate the reporting style of the pandemic. By and large, reporting on other countries during the pandemic was always a comparison of the capacity of their own government to keep the spread of the virus under control, in comparison to the performance of other countries. It was not necessarily a competition, but it provided a counterfactual of the damage that could have either been avoided altogether, or at least delayed.
In journalism coverage, people were intuitively more concerned about the consequences the COVID-19 spread would have for their own countries, and cases where it was worse off were simply a reason to the thankful. If the country happened to be doing worse than others, the blame game depended on political affiliation, and things could get a tad-bit toxic.
When cases inevitably rose, it was always the government’s incompetence. The contextual factors that led to every new wave or outbreak of COVID-19 were ignored. While reporting did often attempted to nuance the situation, for protesters, everything had an ulterior motive, a political cause. It was not about the logistics of the global spread, or how it could be controlled. The “how, what, where and, when” of the pandemic eventually became a question of “why”. Everything was painted with political colours, and partisanship was the name of the game.
Every piece of reporting was somebody else’s fake news
“MEDIA IS DE VIRUS”, a giant banner that was waved across a crowd of Dutch Q-anon supporters, anti-vaxxers, and anti-maskers. When I laughed and asked if I could record him, he responded “I don’t like your Moroccan newspaper either”. The insult was not solely racial, associating my skin colour with the majority immigrant population, but the fact that he was implying that I was probably a reporter working for a Leftist newspaper, the ones that are sympathetic to immigrants.
From my biased sample, a deep distrust in institutions seemed to be at an all-time high: it started to dawn upon people that perhaps the government, who could be secretly colluding with the global elitists, could no longer be trusted. The reporting of the supposedly “fake” pandemic was the true nemesis for the people in the protests. This was one of the crucial talking points adopted by Far Right and anti-EU rhetoric in The Netherlands. On the far Left, the government capitalized on the pandemic by conspiring with private companies at the expense of the middle and working class (so nearly everyone that wasn’t ultra-wealthy).
News coverage, or the truth of the pandemic, really depended on political allegiance. What was true really depended on what you believed, and this was exacerbated by news reporting that would take every opportunity to interpret every event within the lens of their own politics. Even though the pandemic was a shared human experience, it only revealed how fragmented we all are, and there was barely an emphasis on a sense of solidarity. From my experiences documenting the riots, the news that was informing them only made the clashes between societal groups even more apparent.
Anti-globalist sentiments are as globalist as it gets.
For the people at the Dutch anti-vaxxer protest, the people felt antagonised by what a girl in the protest reported to me as “a coup on our national freedom by the globalists”. In the centre of the protest was a giant Gadsden flag held up by multiple grown men, waving yellow and black colour, the timber rattlesnake ready to strike, with the words, “Don’t Tread On Me”.
These anti-globalist sentiments are ironically global when they strategically ally with global movements to adopt symbols, and political affiliation with groups that are not local in the slightest. It seems that several Western countries were internally stratified along similar lines, with similar themes and clashes identifying the political movements. Throughout Europe, some people considered the government regulations as an impingement of their personal freedoms, others found the international organisations and their central governments that set health policies and regulations to be trustworthy and scientific.
The internet has connected all of us. Yet it has also connected us in ways that can make us even more disconnected from the people in our local communities that have differing views. So where does journalism come into all of this?
Where’s where it gets more opinionated.
An opportunity to re-imagine the role of the journalist?
I mentioned that the pandemic is the first collective event in which we’re all experiencing the same thing as a species, across countries, languages and cultures. The masks, the quarantine, the health advice, the social distancing. We developed a universal sentiment of annoyance, frustration, isolation and uncertainty. We don’t all read the same things, but global news reporting has a special role in providing a glimpse of this shared human reality.
Here I see an opportunity to reimagine the role of a journalist, one that fulfills the role of threading together disparate realities of people across these geographies and cultures. There is a financial incentive for partisanship, but to assume our attention is retained solely by having our narrow world views confirmed is shallow: on a deeper level, we’re also looking to be understood.
Journalists could have found themselves using this pandemic to have us empathise with one another a little more. It might even be less idealistic to strive for news that could be more empathetic rather than impartial. In fact, I think more of the former is not only achievable, but marketable. ‘Glocal’ stories – a small-scale local story transcended to a global experience is the kind of feel-good that sells.
Every different group that came out to protest was there to represent their own sorrows and experiences. They were trying to process their experiences, and the news played a role in forming a narrative that would scapegoat and find someone to blame. The protestors were tragically unable to empathise with people who were on the opposite side, experiencing the same things as they were. Journalists must become aware of whether their stories serve to counsel and mediate conflicts in society; or whether they instigate and insinuate its fragmentation.
This article is by Nabeel Khan a 2021/22 Media and Communications MSc student. email@example.com
You can view his films about the pandemic, protest and conspiracy theories here
The views in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Polis or the LSE