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Sacrificial Lambs and Government Scapegoats

The Revd Joe Haward shows how the UK Government is turning its historical failure over the Coronavirus pandemic into a myth that blames the victims

The Scapegoat, by William Holman Hunt, 1854. Photo: Wikimedia

Sacrificial Lambs &Government Scapegoats

Revd Joe Haward shows how the UK Government is turning its historical failure over the Coronavirus pandemic into a myth that blames the victims

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On 17 July, Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock asked Public Health England to urgently review the methodology used to report daily COVID-19 deaths.

As a result, on 12 August, a new reporting measure was introduced by the Government, whereby it would “publish the number of deaths that occurred within 28 days of a positive lab-confirmed COVID-19 test result on a daily basis”. This new method reduced the total number of people who had died with COVID-19 in the UK by 5,377.

The UK Government, rewriting the truth of how many people are dying from COVID-19, is a modern example of the mythic genesis

This new methodology means that those who have died, or will die, with COVID-19 after a 28-day period of testing positive, are not counted in the Government’s daily updates. It does not take into account those who are critically ill and die with COVID-19 over a period longer than 28 days, nor the uncertainty that still exists around immunity and the possibility of catching the Coronavirus on more than one occasion, and perhaps dying with COVID-19 over 28 days after a first positive test. 

Daily updates of deaths on the Government’s Coronavirus website include only deaths within 28 days of testing positive. Using this new methodology, the seven-day average number of people dying of COVID-19 is 10. Using the old methodology reveals that 61 people are dying with the virus every day in the UK. 

While the Government try to conceal the true extent of the Coronavirus tragedy, they simultaneously focus on the supposed ‘invasion’ of illegal migrants trying to enter the UK. It may seem like in Orwellian method of propaganda, but this rewriting of reality is not unusual within our long human history. And it relies on a central myth.

The Theology of Violence and ‘Othering’

There is a mythic genesis to humanity where violence has the power to found and order culture. Myths begin with a moment of cosmic or social crisis that is resolved through the expulsion or death of a victim, often at the hands of a frenzied and furious mob which is unshakeable in the guilt its assigns to this person or people.

The community is certain in its belief that the crisis it faces is because of this figure – an odious ‘other’, an object of hatred and condemnation. It is important that they were not seen to be “one of us” otherwise vengeance might be sought, and the myth of their guilt would untangle, but enough like us to justify the arbitrary nature of selection.

The act of scapegoating enables the community to unleash the entirety of their rage and violence upon them, and silences the voice of the victim. Such an act is cathartic for the community and a fragile peace is restored, yet now with strictly controlled rituals that reenact the ‘founding murder’. Here we find the origin of the gods of religion, myth, sacrifice, and ritual. Violence has always had a way of decomposing and then recomposing communities thanks to the act of scapegoating, triggered by moments of crisis. Stories are developed around these acts of violence, stories that form cultures and are then passed on from generation to generation, giving human communities identity and solidarity. 

In the Old Testament, we encounter the story of Achan. We are told the Israelites are in a state of crisis, unable to capture the land of Ai. The text tells us that the “Lord’s anger” burned against the Israelites because someone had taken sacred objects, and so God’s favour was no longer with the people. Achan and his family are finally pulled out as the culprits and stoned to death by the entire community.

The Stoning of Achan  by Gustav Doré.

The text holds all the elements of myth and scapegoating; a community in crisis, the threat of violence, a belief that the gods are against them, transgression, arbitrary selection of a scapegoat, murder, fragile peace.

After Achan and his family’s murder, the community build a monument on the place where they died, an altar that reminds the community of what brought them peace. The Flood story, Lot’s wife, Ananias and Sapphira, are further examples in the Bible of mythic stories where crisis and then violence brings ‘peace’. 

Another story is from the Tikopia people of the Pacific ocean involving the character Tikarau, a ‘god from foreign parts’. A crisis results from his visit as Tikarau steals some of the food prepared for a great feast. The community chases him up a hill to the edge of a cliff, whereby the story ends with Tikarau launching himself into the sky and escaping. The story can be interpreted as the community’s condemnation of Tikarau as they drive him off the edge of the cliff to his death. 

Like with Achan and Tikarau, these kinds of ritual execution are not unusual in these myth stories. Whether it is stoning, cliffs, drowning, or hanging, the community unite in their condemnation and are thus reconciled through the collective act of murder and expulsion. The victim(s) is considered responsible for the disorder, and the unanimous gathering against them assures and justifies the community of their act. Myths are then created to hide the voice of the victim.

Blaming the Victims

As we develop our anthropological, historical, and sociological understanding, we learn that ancient myths tell us truths that have been covered up, suppressing the voice of the victim, and can give us insight into our own culture and context. 

Propaganda and rhetoric against Muslims and people seeking asylum have been consistently deployed at every crisis juncture by populist leaders. As the death toll from COVID-19 continues to increase, the pain of deep recession, and the catastrophe of Brexit hits, expect such rhetoric and hate speech to increase. It is times such as this where myths arise: a social crisis that is resolved through scapegoating.

Truth is now vital. Myths are being created, told by those in power, in order to silence the voice of the victims and transfer the fear, chaos, and anxiety of the nation upon scapegoats.

The UK Government, rewriting the truth of how many people are dying from COVID-19, is a modern example of the mythic genesis, with families and loved ones of those who have died from the virus exposed to the violence of governmental mendacity. The voices of those who have died of COVID-19 demand to be heard, voices that reveal the deficiency, greed, and apathy of the Government, failures that have cost thousands of lives. 


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