Why is extremism even more of a risk in times of Covid?

In the first of a series of blogs around the theme of safeguarding, ETF Associate Selina Stewart considers why extremism is even more of a risk during the Covid pandemic.

Before Covid-19 Oliver always seemed a pleasant and mild mannered young man who liked everyone and was passionate about his engineering course. Now he is a vaccine denier who has posted racist comments on Instagram. How and why did he change during lockdown?

Since March 2020, our lives have been transformed. Colleges closed their doors to nearly all learners in March and didn’t reopen until the autumn when learners and apprentices returned to education and training. Another lockdown followed and now college doors have reopened again. Our social lives have been restricted and most of us live in fear of Covid-19 for ourselves and more particularly for our families.

We are told that young people like Oliver don’t worry about Covid-19, that they break all the rules, and spread the virus. This is obviously a gross exaggeration. Some do break the rules, while others are very anxious to the extent that this becomes a disability. Many of our learners, even if they are young and fit, have older relatives: grans, aunts, uncles, and grandads, who they often worry about. They may well live in multi-generational households where their actions directly impact on others as they have to share bathrooms, kitchens and living rooms.

Even those who are breaking the rules are often confused, unhappy or scared as well; behaviour is often illogical!

How does this link to extremism? Why does this mean people are more likely to be drawn into extremism?

When people are scared or worried, they are more drawn to extremism. They are looking for clarity in a complex situation, they are looking for an easy answer in a world that seems to have got out of control. The effects of these fears manifest in different ways.

For some people the answer is to live in denial and to refuse to believe that Covid-19 is real. They see restrictions on our lives as a plot to control us all. We have seen Covid deniers standing outside British hospitals shouting at exhausted medical staff as they come off shift.

Some look to blame people like Bill Gates for supposedly creating Covid to profit from it.

Others blame Covid-19 on someone else; in the early stages of the crisis this was on Chinese and South East Asian people in the UK. They experienced verbal abuse and even physical attacks. As the pandemic continued the extremists started to blame their favourite targets: Jews, migrants and Muslims.

People create malevolent stories that explain the difficult situation we are in and to blame someone else whether that is “the authorities”, a shadowy “elite”, or minority ethnic groups.

Religious extremists tell their followers that Covid-19 is the fault of nonbelievers; this feeds into the hatred that religious extremists try to incite towards those who don’t follow their faith.

Islamicists like Al-Qaeda have mostly seen Covid-19 as an opportunity either to convert non-believers or those they don’t believe follow Islam in the right way to their extremist ideas. Meanwhile Daesh have seen the pandemic as an opportunity to take advantage of the additional pressure on governments around the world to carry out terrorist attacks. In the early stages of the pandemic there was a worldwide increase in Daesh claimed attacks.

In the UK in June 2020 three young men were murdered in a park in Reading; in France it included the murder of a school teacher; in Germany a stabbing in Dresden in October; and in Austria there was a gun attack in Vienna in November. However, as ever, most of the terrorist attacks, which were less reported in our news, were actually in predominantly Muslim countries.

Right wing extremists have also seen the crisis as the perfect environment for a race war leading to the collapse of society or ‘accelerationism’. In the minds of right wing extremists, society will be rebuilt in a way which supports the aims of white supremacists with a white only or white society.

The Far Right have seen the Covid crisis as an opportunity to reach a more mainstream audience. In the early months, as China was blamed for the Coivd-19 outbreak, they particularly targeted Chinese and South East Asian communities with verbal and also violent attacks.

In the first three months of 2020 there were at least 267 hate crimes against people of Chinese and South East Asian origin recorded in the UK, including assaults, robberies, harassment and criminal damage.

In addition to attacks on Chinese and South East Asians, the extreme right has used this as an opportunity to attack one of their favourite targets, the Jewish community. There are claims that either Covid was created by Jewish elites to destroy the ‘white race’ or that it is a hoax so that the same ‘Jewish elites’ can profit from the vaccine. Covid-19 has been labelled ‘the Jewish virus’ by some. Extremists who are infected have been encouraged to go out to try to infect Jewish people by forcibly transferring bodily fluids to members of the Jewish community.

The Covid crisis has also increased harassment and attacks on other BAME communities, especially women and particularly key workers. The more vulnerable a group is, the more they are targeted.

The extremists are exploiting and grooming people through fear and anger; one of their key tools is conspiracy theories. One conspiracy theory is that this is a virus created by Jewish scientists to gain control of the world or to kill off non-Jews. This is particularly bizarre as early on Jewish men and women were identified as having higher mortality from Covid-19. Another is that Bill Gates created the virus so that he could reduce the world population or that he has had a long term aim to depopulate the world through ‘forced vaccination’.

Whether we see these false stories in our social media or internet bubbles or not, it is almost certain that our learners do. Ofcom has been researching news consumption since the start of the Covid-19 lockdown. It found that 46% of respondents said they had come across false or misleading information in week one of lockdown; this increased to 50% in week five.

With so many people, including many of our learners, encountering misinformation and conspiracy theories, it is clear that we need to support them to become critical thinkers. This will give learners the skills to evaluate claims they see online, which will reduce the number of people who are drawn into conspiracy theories or into extremism. As educators, we have a real responsibility to help learners like Oliver to challenge extremism and to learn to think critically.

The Education and Training Foundation ran a a series of forums and webinars for staff across FE and Training who lead on safeguarding, including a webinar on 16 March 2021 examining what grooming and extremism mean for the sector. For details of these events, please visit the Prevent Forums and Webinars page on the ETF website.