The first thing you’d notice, approaching the University Parks on the 14thFebruary, would be a trail of red, heart-shaped balloons. By early afternoon, the Banksy-esque decorations were tied to bins, lampposts, clutched in the hands of children passing by. Like us, you might have thought it was someone’s heartfelt Valentine’s Day gesture. Until we heard accusing screams of “Russia!” and turned to see a small group of protestors, nose to nose with the police.
On paper, the Oxford Valentine’s Day demonstration was about one thing: what protestors believe to be violation of human rights taking place under UK lockdown. Some believe COVID-19 to be a hoax, others held signs asserting that “children’s mental health matters”, but all shared the opinion that lockdown is a direct attack on personal freedom. Just this week, this cry has been echoed at larger protests in Melbourne, Dublin, Birmingham, and Thessaloniki (to name a few). Here in Oxford, they were marching; and out of morbid curiosity, we followed.
We caught up with a demonstrator holding a balloon, proudly displaying replica military medals. With his consent, we recorded our first interview.
“There is no pandemic…there are no more people dying this year than any other year. I’m not very clever, but there’s no flu deaths, there’s no pneumonia deaths….the same total of Covid deaths is what used to be flu and pneumonia. You haven’t got to be very brainy to see that they’ve just moved them.”
According to the Office for National Statistics, between January and August 2019, 17,432 people died from Influenza and Pneumonia (pre-COVID). For the same months in 2020, the figure was 14,013. The annual figures have oscillated over the previous decade, at almost 16,560 in 2010 and over 21,300 in 2018, so the 2020 statistic is not extraordinary. As of the 17th February 2021, there have been a total 129,498 UK deaths that can be attributed to COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic; a vast number of lives lost that cannot be attributed to mere misdiagnoses.
When asked where the protest was headed, the man told us to “follow the sirens.”
There was relative calm at Bond Square, where the protestors had spread out. There were around 70 of them, and about 20 policemen, attempting to encourage social distancing (which was largely met with laughter from protestors). Children ran around playing. Their parents and grandparents, many over-60, stood around unmasked. A few were shouting at the police while their children stood quietly beside them; others were queueing for coffee.
“We do not consent to this,” one protestor shouted, apparently threatened with arrest, before joining his counterparts in the kiosk queue. He agreed to talk to us, but only after insisting that we remove our face masks (“unless you’re undercover police”). He told us this wasn’t the first time he’d faced potential arrest, having also been detained in London for “trying to educate [his] children”. He chose not to expand on this, because “you never know who might be listening”. I asked him if the children next to him were his. “These are my property, yes.”
His son’s sign read: “Did you know there’s chimpanzee virus in the Oxford vaccine?” He wasn’t strictly wrong: according to the University of Oxford, the ChAdOx1 vaccine is a chimpanzee adenovirus vaccine vector, which is “harmless”, and has been “genetically changed so that it is impossible for it to grow in humans.” Nevertheless, every protestor we came across was resolutely anti-vaccine.
The 9-year-old boy explained, with surprising eloquence, that lockdown was “the biggest killer”, and a cover for human experiments. A woman nearby applauded and the child beamed. He then pointed out that he was actually one minute older than his twin brother, “which makes me boss”. He seemed like an authoritative source.
Everyone we spoke to, despite their differences, shared the collective sentiment that the government can no longer be trusted (a few expressed shame over having voted for Boris Johnson in 2019). “What we’re living under now is Communism”. However, it isn’t just the UK government being criticised by anti-lockdown campaigners, if the protests all over the world are anything to go by. “It’s any government that’s buying into this b******s”, as one protestor put.
Despite the balloons, none of them seemed sure why they had chosen Valentine’s Day, other than perhaps it was a conveniently timed weekend. “It was just the Sunday we decided on,” one mother said. “We’re here as parents and as people who are concerned about what the lockdown is doing to young people and children.”
So, for some Oxford locals, the day of love was a day of rebellion; a day of desperation. “It’s about freedom and liberty”, they told us repeatedly. Despite the confrontation between protestors and police, no public arrests were made. Eventually, everyone went back to their lives, taking their red balloons with them. But the protestors assured us that, as long as the UK remains in lockdown, this won’t be their last word.