The exact start of the Covid-19 pandemic isn’t known. At the time of writing this chapter (November 2021), it is believed that via some means a variant of a coronavirus found in other mammals made its way into the human population. A less likely possibility (on current evidence) is that the virus outbreak was due to an accidental exposure from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It’s likely that there will never be a wholly unambiguous answer to this question because viruses don’t keep diaries or film their activities for Tik-Tok. This chapter isn’t the story of a virus or a pandemic though — there are better places to read about how Covid-19 spread around the world. This is a story about fear, uncertainty and doubts both natural and manufactured but also about how people coped with a challenging year.
From early January 2020, the spread of the virus and the reaction of governments and health agencies to the virus become increasingly well documented. Through that time, understanding of the nature of the virus, how it spread, what it did to people and who were most likely to suffer ill effects increased rapidly. However, during that period of shifting understanding, public advice was changing rapidly while governments and health officials scrambled to make policy. It was not even clear initially whether there had been cases of human-to-human transmission of the virus even as (as we know in retrospect) it was spreading rapidly.
Culturally, the idea of a global pandemic wasn’t new. The 21st century had already seen the 2003 SARS outbreak that had impacted South China and Hong Kong in particular but which had also spread to parts of South East Asia and even Canada. The 2009 H1N1 (aka “swine flu”) pandemic had proved to be less fatal than many had feared but had still been a notable cultural and political phenomenon. The 2015-16 outbreak of Zika fever had led to particular concerns over the impact on pregnancies while the 2013-16 outbreak of ebola in West Africa had even become a minor issue in the 2016 US Presidential campaign. The Ebola outbreak had been deadly but geographically limited. However, the high fatality and gruesomeness of the disease meant that it was particularly fearsome in the public consciousness.
That public consciousness of epidemics and pandemics had been shaped for decades by popular culture. Crossing genres of horror, thrillers and science fiction, stories of pandemics, contagion and biological weapons are plentiful. H.G.Wells’s seminal War of the Worlds isn’t a pandemic story as such but it presents disease as the ultimate undoing of the invading Martians. Works from writers as varied as Alistair MacClean, Stephen King and Margaret Atwood have played on the themes of potential or realised pandemics. The 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning novel Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel imagined a world rebuilding in the ruins of civilisation destroyed by an influenza pandemic.
There are multiple layers of fantasies in these works. On the one hand the idea of disease as an external and essentially foreign threat — a deliberate or accidental invader from “abroad”. On the other hand, science fiction’s double-edged view of science as both saviour and existential threat, with researchers into disease either as the heroic people battling the disease or as the Frankenstein-like figures who push the boundaries of knowledge too far.
So it was not surprising that early in 2020 there was much speculation that a novel virus might be a bioweapon on one hand or an accidental release of medical research on the other. At any time, the discovery of a major new disease might have led to speculation on both these points but in 2020 the world was already in a state where wild or even absurd theories could gain rapid attention (for example Qanon). In addition, among much of the American right (already at a high degree of conspiracy ideation) China was the international enemy du jour. US President Donald Trump had been escalating a trade war with China since 2018 and the violent crackdown of pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong was alarming people across the US political spectrum.
What was in January/February a perceived danger of a potentially disruptive epidemic was also regarded by many on the right as the fault of the Chinese government or the Chinese people and culture more generally. Whether this was via intention (a bioweapon) or by accident (a lab leak) or because of a culture gone awry (typically via the demonisation of so-called “wet markets” selling unusual wild animals for meat), there was an insistence on the right that China in some broad sense be held responsible for any consequences of this new virus. This first stage of folding the future pandemic into the partisan US culture war, therefore, focused on the name of the disease.
There had already been a substantial pushback by public health agencies against the mainstream media naming the disease after its apparent point of origin in Wuhan, China. This pushback was not a new thing and similar work had been done to pushback against the H1N1influenza names of “Mexican Flu” and “Swine Flu” (less successfully) as names like these caused public confusion on how the disease was spread.
On the right, names such as “wu-flu”, “kung-flu”, “xi-disease” were used partly to maintain the association with China and also as a counter-protest against the official pushback against the name “Wuhan coronavirus” which had initially been used in news coverage. On February 11 the WHO officially named the disease Covid-19 and the virus SARS-CoV-2 and the mainstream media followed suit. The pushback against this name continued on the right for some time. In March 2020 the anti-Communist/pro-Trump Epoch Times argued:
“There has been controversy recently about what to call the virus that has unleashed a worldwide pandemic. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) prefers “novel coronavirus.” Others have referred to it as the “Wuhan virus,” after its place of origin, as is common in naming diseases. The Epoch Times suggests a more accurate name is the “CCP virus,” and calls upon others to join us in adopting this name.”https://web.archive.org/web/20200319150457/https://www.theepochtimes.com/giving-the-right-name-to-the-virus-causing-a-worldwide-pandemic-2_3277200.html
At Sarah Hoyt’s blog, this nominal confusion was demonstrated by a repeated error of thinking that Covid-19 was somehow essentially Chinese and that this Chinese characteristic would prevent the disease from spreading to Western countries even after it had already done so.
“Even in Italy, the mortality is mostly among Chinese transplants. And before you tell me I’m racist (rolls eyes), no, I’m not. Leaving aside the protein in the lungs this thing might or might not bind to, there are co-morbidity factors for Chinese (and to an extent for Italians. Definitely for Iranians, particularly Iranian males.) One of them is smoking like a chimney. The other is that China (where the mortality seems to be way higher, honestly) is more polluted than you can imagine. Iran might be too. You know dictatorships don’t really much care for the environment, and I remember Portugal in the early sixties, when going out early in the morning during rush hour was like putting your face fully in the exhaust of a car. I have no clue as to Italy air quality, and I have a full schedule ahead, so I refuse to fall down that rabbit hole.https://accordingtohoyt.com/2020/02/28/dont-fear-the-wu-flu/
Right now we know it’s spreading like wild fire. It’s known as a “virgin field” epidemic. What it doesn’t seem to be is all that deadly. NOT among countries which actually give a f*ck about their citizens. For the others, everything is deadly. Remember North Korea telling their citizens that pine needle soup was nutritious?”
Hoyt was telling her readers not to be afraid of Covid-19 in late February even as the disease was already running rampant in Iran. (The Iran connection would later lead Vox Day to spread the idea that Covid-19 was actually a US deep-state biowarfare attack on China and Iran). The stickiness of this idea that the virus was somehow essentially Chinese as if it remembered its origins, would still be there with Hoyt many weeks later in April when the body count in the US was already climbing exponentially.
“It’s hard to deny the disease presents in weird clusters. I have a friend whose Georgia County is about the same level of bad as Italy. Which makes no sense whatsoever, as they have no high Chinese population. And while the cases might be guess work (with tests only accurate AT MOST 70% of the time, it’s guesswork all the way down) the deaths aren’t. The community is small enough they all know each other. And they’re losing relatively young (still working) and relatively healthy (no known big issues) people.”https://accordingtohoyt.com/2020/04/03/assume-a-spherical-cow-of-uniform-density-in-a-frictionless-vaccum/
Whatever the origins of the disease, by early March Covid-19 had already moved beyond them. However, this sense of Covid-19 as a distinctly Chinese or perhaps East Asian phenomenon continued as wishful thinking that the new version of SARS would follow the same script as its older cousin. This disconnect between the feeling of relative safety and a disease spreading rapidly through international travel was encapsulated in an account by former Sad Puppy supporter and Dragon Award finalist Declan Finn who in early March 2020 took a trip to Italy with his new wife. Covid-19 was already spreading quickly in Italy at this point but as Finn noted:
“But yeah, Italy decided to freak out over the Corona Virus.https://web.archive.org/web/20200316225157/http://www.declanfinn.com/2020/03/i-have-returned-from-italy-part-1-oh.html
You’re probably wondering, Declan, why go there in the first place?
Because when we went, it was Lombardi that was the problem. Milan and Venice, et al were the problems.
Lombardi was “under lockdown.”
I figured, “It’s Lombardi. It’s a quarantine. How do you fuck up a quarantine? Close the roads, the border, and shut down planes and trains in and out of the area.”‘
Finn would find himself having to flee Italy (breaking airport security in the process) as a wave of international shutdowns of air travel to prevent the spread of disease left millions of people stranded. Air travel allowed the epidemic to quickly become a pandemic, jumping from one major international transport hub to another. By the time Declan Finn had returned from Italy, New York had begun to shut schools as a public health measure against the virus. By April 6, New York was one of the largest outbreaks of Covid-19 in the world at the time with over 2,000 people dead.
I’m emphasising the partisan disinformation aspects of this early phase of the pandemic but in this first quarter of 2020 right-wing websites were not exclusively pushing nonsense about the pandemic. Only a few of the former Sad Puppies could reasonably be called “Preppers” (Peter Grant of Tor Boycott fame for example) but the widespread sense of looming disaster or Communist take-over did mean that there was helpful advice on preparedness including warning people to make sure they had sufficient supplies of food, medication and clean water for a potential period of quarantine. Sarah Hoyt’s blog carried a guest post about the need for infection control measures written by a registered nurse. Warnings against panic buying could also be found, which was particularly pertinent in March 2020 when a wave of panic buying of toilet paper spread around the world fueled primarily by a fear of shortages caused by the self-same panic buying. Sarah Hoyt (as our main example here) also correctly identified in early March that the group under greatest threat of death from Covid-19 was old people in nursing homes and that insufficient attention was being paid to keeping these people safe.
The arrival of a pandemic while not wholly unexpected was also a surprise to everybody. For the American right that prepper/self-reliant strand of the culture was almost disappointed in Covid-19’s almost anti-climatic progress. Not only was survival common rather than limited to a special few, for many people Covid was asymptomatic. The deadly nature of Covid lay in its capacity to easily spread, often via the more wealthy people. At least initially, many developing nations were spared the impact of the disease while America and Western Europe became the areas with the fastest growth. Forcing Covid into a partisan narrative would be difficult but it would be necessary because there was no simple free-market response to a pandemic — what was going to be done in response was going to require a coordinated national response. In late March with many parts of America locking down and the federal government initiating new spending, Sarah Hoyt began to frame the response to the pandemic as a plot by the left.
“This brings us to Enemies-domestic: the left is flexing everything that remains of its power to convince the population that they’re all going to die and that only government can save them. It might work long enough to elect their spokes-zombie, Joe Biden, D-mentia, to the presidency. That’s what they’re counting on. Because once they get it, we will never, ever, ever vote our way out. Shooting our way out is the only thing we can hope for.https://accordingtohoyt.com/2020/03/19/seven-days-in-march/
And we must count on Trump to turn the corner on that. I’m not sure about it. They’re trying to pass the second stimulus bill to repair what the first undid. (As always, government pretending to fix what it broke. The quarantine broke things, and now the stimulus bill broke more things…. Pardon me I’m going to be ill.) But the second won’t pass, because Malig-Nancy and the House Wreckers will not want the mess repaired. They want us to go down in flames, so socialism looks good.
Hoyt’s claim was not that Covid-19 was fake but that the left and the Democrats and the media had created a panic which had duped everybody, including Trump and much of the Republican Party into implementing an economic shut-down and deficit spending. These measures were certain, in Hoyt’s view, to be a disaster on a scale far beyond the pandemic and by March 24 her predictions had escalated.
“Every part of the machine is interlocked. And what is happening is taking the wheels off. It’s smashing into the center of the economy with a hammer. BTW when I say there will be famine and people will die, I mean in the US. PEOPLE WILL DIE. Of hunger. Of lack of heat. Of lack of medicine. PEOPLE WILL DIE. And not all of them the insane people who are instigating this. In fact, most of the power mad governors will be just fine. And one can only hope that the idiots roaming facebook and saying this is their chance to smash capitalism get to FEEL what they’re encouraging. Dying of hunger ain’t pretty.https://accordingtohoyt.com/2020/03/24/cures-and-diseases/
In the rest of the world? If people starve in the US, the rest of the world will starve worse. Russia thinks it can be resurgent. So does China. They’re going to find mostly they die. Their despotic systems only work in an hyper abundant world. But what this whole thing adds to is that the Chinese Virus was not the problem. The people imposing crazy quarantines and measures are. The idea that you can shut the country down for two weeks is bad enough. The people trying to stampede us into doing it longer, are ignorant of the realities of economics, or indeed of reality.”
By April, the idea that Covid-19 was some uniquely Chinese disease was no longer tenable even for Sarah Hoyt. Instead, she offered a new theory why the disease was running rampant in many parts of the world but that major public health measures were largely unwarranted. The answer was too many people were hugging.
“also think if you go and look at the clusters, you’ll find that there are reasons why it got exceptionally bad there, but not anywhere else. And it was never going to get as bad anywhere else. And the measures should have been taken specifically in those places, without the ruinous cost of crashing the economy. For instance, my friend in Albany, Georgia, tells me he assumes part of the reason it got so bad in his neighborhood (the worst per capita in the U.S. last I looked) is that “we are the touchiest, most social people I know,” i.e., there is a lot of touching and hugging.https://pjmedia.com/blog/sarah-hoyt/2020/04/12/modeling-covid-19-and-the-lies-of-multiculturalism-n384188
At a guess, this is the reason it got so bad in Italy, too, but not nearly as bad in Germany, where, frankly, people aren’t that touchy/feely/huggy.
New York City — do I really need to say this? — is not Colorado. I can go months without using an elevator. I can’t remember the last time I used a subway, and the last time I used public transport was last year while visiting my parents in Portugal – and even then, only when I was going to downtown Porto because it’s almost impossible to park. If I keep the curtains closed in the bathroom, I can’t see my closest neighbor (who admittedly is close, but that’s on one side). That’s in Denver. I have open space in the front and back of the house, and the only people I share air with are my family.
Now, in NYC, besides the fact they all live in modified closets with shared air, you can’t get anywhere without rubbing elbows with strangers. Subways and elevators are simply parts of daily life for most New Yorkers. And as for social distancing… well! Every time I go East, when I hit the first layover, I want to start singing, “Don’t stand so close to me.” So, would a complete lockdown of the city, with perhaps distribution of food so the grocery stores could be closed, make sense for NYC? Sure it would. Of course it would.
A grave violation of everyone’s rights? Sure. No doubt about that. But perhaps necessary for a limited time in a limited space. Does a complete lockdown in places where the culture is completely different make any sense? No. Also no. With a side of no.”
Nor was this just the strange ideas of a minor science-fiction writer. Hoyt’s PJ Media column expounding this theory was picked up by veteran right-wing talk radio personality Rush Limbaugh who amplified her claims.
“We assume everybody must live in New York. Everybody must live the dense populations. In other words, there’s no state of Washington model for Texas. Well, there might be, but it doesn’t get used and it’s overshadowed and overused by the nationwide model.https://www.rushlimbaugh.com/daily/2020/04/13/the-covid-19-models-cant-account-for-culture/
Now, she [Hoyt] makes it clear. “I don’t think,” she writes, “COVID-19 is a hoax. … I do think it has got really bad ‘in clusters.’ I also think if you go and look at the clusters, you’ll find that there are reasons why it got exceptionally bad there, but not anywhere else.” Like why is it not bad West Virginia? Why is it not nearly as bad in California as it is in New York? Why is it not nearly as bad originally in the state of Washington as it is elsewhere? Where are there places where it isn’t really bad at all? Is that of no interest to anybody? Or do we sweep that under the rug in order to protect the integrity of the models?”
In reality, Covid-19 was already growing exponentially in Hoyt’s home state of Colorado and was firmly entrenched in the less populous states of America. Cases were declining in New York but that was just the end of the beginning of America’s pandemic. Nonetheless Tucker Carlson of Fox News was busy claiming that the pandemic was now receding.
In this period from April to May 2020 a position on the Covid-19 pandemic among the US right began to crystalise around the central idea that Covid-19 was no worse than a seasonal flu and that the only appropriate measures was to continue as per normal with perhaps an extra emphasis on personal hygiene. Not only should there not be lockdowns but the potential damage to the economy was such that people needed to be actively encouraged to be economically active and that public health messaging in general was causing fear and panic, which was also hurting the economy. Further, this growing viewpoint on the right saw the public health measure being implemented not just as an error or a mistaken policy born out of over cautious thinking but as a deliberate attempt by the left (even in the form of Republican governors) to push an authoritarian agenda. Naturally, within this paradigm of the pandemic as an excuse for a left-wing plot which would lead to mass starvation, the only appropriate response was to rebel:
“Here’s the thing, though, the way things are RIGHT NOW, you can rebel now or rebel later. You can rebel now, and go back to your life, or you can rebel later, when you’ll have to shoot anyone asking you for papers or keeping you from growing beans.https://accordingtohoyt.com/2020/04/10/olly-olly-oxen-free/
If you don’t assert your rights now, you’ll have to assert them in blood, when you’re starving and sick, cold and broken in winter, when the lights go out (we’ve already been having brownouts and blackouts) when your cars are not working, when getting factories back in a state to produce anything is almost impossible, when airplanes have been taken to “graveyards” in the desert forever, when your local hospital has shut its doors and has no money to reopen.”
The idea of anti-lockdown protests as a part of the culture war would continue throughout the pandemic and in the process subsume within it genuine fears, anxieties and legitimate complaints about the severe measures that would be implemented in multiple nations. However, it was not just the most aggressive anti-Covid measures that would be caught up in the backlash, it was the symbols of the pandemic as well and no symbol was pervasive than the light blue of the surgical mask.
“Over and over, everywhere, they’re out in force. “I wear a mask because I care.”https://accordingtohoyt.com/2020/05/13/the-danger-of-masks/
The fact this phrase is always used tells me it’s not original. They heard it somewhere, and it sounded good to them and they’re going to use it buckle and tongue whenever anyone challenges the UTILITY — or the sanity — of their wearing a mask.
In fact their wearing a mask is tying a yellow ribbon in their front yard during the Iran hostage crisis. It is flying the flag after 9/11. It’s a way of showing their feelings, their emotions. It’s also a way of feeling part of a crowd. (Yes, I flew the flag after 9/11. But my dears, I fly the flag all the time, up to and including when I get a wild hair.)
They don’t even TRY to argue it does something useful. They just view it as a symbol to tie to their faces, to show they “care.””
From here on in the complexity of responses to a pandemic would be filtered through the conspiratorial lens of the partisan culture war to the point of absurdity. Within this lens Sweden, a nation normally demonised by the US right for its social-democratic policies, was lionised for its relatively light touch (with the right ignoring reasons why Sweden had a better chance of avoiding lockdowns than the US, including the country’s approach to healthcare, better work/life balance and high civic trust) while Australia’s centre-right government was demonised for strict border controls. President Donald Trump’s chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci became a figure increasingly demonised by Trump’s supporters because he continued to communicate the seriousness of the disease. To be seen as taking Covid-19 seriously was in itself regarded as a partisan act tantamount to undermining the position of Trump and giving aid to “enemies, domestic”.
The conspiratorial and contrarian culture war response to Covid-19 would not abate in the coming months. Folded into the anti-factual narrative came alternative cures, initially hydroxychloroquine and later the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin as well as older quack cures such as mineral bleach that had been circulating prior to the pandemic but which was co-opted as Covid cure as early as January 2020. Once Covid-19 was perceived as a front in the culture war it became axiomatic that the official narrative (i.e. more evidence based sources) was a lie and the “truth” must lie somewhere else. Forced to choose between science and fiction, America’s right chose fiction while the case numbers and the death toll continued to grow.
Meanwhile, in the reality-based community…
While some parts of the science fiction community were using their imaginative capacity to perceive public health as a leftist coup, everybody else was contending with the challenge of the new world of the pandemic. What nobody knew was how long or how severe the pandemic would be. Neither popular culture nor recent history was much of a help here. As bad as Covid-19 was proving to be, it was clear that the world was not facing a scenario like Station Eleven or other post-apocalyptic literature but nor was the disease going to have a lesser impact than expected like the H1N1 outbreak. In The Andromeda Strain, the rapidly mutating alien virus shifts to a non-lethal form that consumes plastics and while this plot twist was highly fanciful the idea that Covid-19 might burn itself out by spreading so quickly that the majority of people in a country might become immune was an idea that initially, the British government found attractive enough to consider.
Fandom at the start of the 21st century’s third decade was more international and more online than at any point in the past. Like many parts of society, the social and commercial infrastructure that existed via the internet would prove to be an important part of how fandom (and wider society) would cope with a global pandemic.
Where US fandom in particular would find the uncertainty of the pandemic to be a problem was with conventions.
On the scale of the problems the world was facing in 2020, how to run science-fiction conventions was tiny in comparison with a worldwide public health crisis, the potential collapse of international supply chains and the ethical issues of widespread government-enforced lockdowns. Nevertheless, it was a minor conundrum that reflected the multitude of major & minor conundrums faced by communities of various kinds.
As US states enacted pandemic measures in March and April of 2020, many conventions hoped that events would be able to be held from May onward. Hopeful messages in March gave way to likely cancellations in April. Conventions scheduled for later in the year held out hope that things would be better in the second half of the year. However, the realities of Covid-19 were becoming clearer. The virus spread especially well in indoor events, older people were especially vulnerable and events, where varied groups travelled to meet each other, were especially effective at spreading the disease. I don’t believe any science-fiction convention was ever identified as a super-spreader event but this was more likely due to their widespread cancellation than their inherent nature.
Some larger pop-culture conventions examined ways of organising as smaller events that could enforce social-distancing measures. Atlanta’s Dragon Con spent several months planning a reduced size convention but in July 2020 was forced to announce that the physical convention would be cancelled for that year.
Worldcon faced a more layered conundrum for 2020. The peripatetic convention was scheduled for Wellington, New Zealand. This was an almost prescient choice for 2020 as New Zealand would prove to be one of the nations with the fewest Covid-19 cases by almost any measure. However, it had achieved this status by almost completely shutting down international travel and using swift lockdowns to control any outbreaks. Even in the event that case numbers would be low enough for a convention to be allowed to run, it would be impossible for members not based in New Zealand to attend.
The very particular problem of a Worldcon being held in a country that had closed its borders reflected an issue that had been building with Worldcon from long before the pandemic. Donald Trump’s aggressive anti-Muslim travel policies had raised fears in 2017 that Muslim fans might face issues travelling into a Worldcon held in the US. Likewise, non-US locations presented a problem for US-based fans whose immigration status might be challenged by the more aggressive immigration controls at the US border. Leaving or entering the US had become more of a challenge to many fans. Nor was this a uniquely American problem. Brexit had made it harder for many EU citizens to freely enter the UK and UK government immigration policies made international travel for UK-based non-citizens more fraught. The 2019 Worldcon in Dublin had no fans attend from Nigeria after the Irish embassy failed to provide visas in time for a set of fans to attend. Broader questions of what kinds of countries would be safe for fans of multiple nations and backgrounds to attend were raised by Worldcon bids from China and Saudi Arabia as well as a speculative potential bid for Israel.
CoNZealand (as the 2020 Worldcon named itself) attempted to solve its very specific problem by moving to a virtual online convention which it announced in April 2020 . This pivot online reflected a broader international trend forced by the pandemic to use of web-based conferencing software such as Zoom to enable people to stay in touch during lockdowns, as well the increased use of services such as Discord and Twitch for people to communicate during online activities such as video-games. These services had all existed prior to the pandemic but the incentives to use them had increased with the increasing difficulty of meeting in person during 2020.
A World of Virtual Cons
Perhaps inevitably CoNZealand ran into some of the same issues that had impacted other recent Worldcons. As with the 2018 Worldcon, several Hugo Award finalists raised concerns about the programming for the conventions. Best Fan Writer finalist and podcaster Alistair Stuart organised an open letter by a group of finalists expressing their concerns.
• Many Hugo finalists have not been offered programming and panels relevant to their nomination.Statement of 2020 Hugo Finalists re: Worldcon Programming, Google Doc https://docs.google.com/document/d/1UNlCm4aNr62qNGRVw1z_ysTwosRcKWUzpURDf0h8lVg/edit
• We believe that many of our panels cannot be adequately performed without more diverse participants and/or a reframing of the topic.
• Communication with Hugo finalists about the financial requirements for participation has been inconsistent or absent, with contradictory information on whether or not we were able to participate in programming without a full attending membership. This issue particularly impacted Black, Indigenous and people of color (“BIPOC”), leaving them more likely than other finalists to receive no programming.
Part of the issue had been confusion about what status of membership finalists needed to take part in what had become a virtual convention. The issue with how to juggle these competing demands led to a further innovation to conventions in 2020: a fringe convention.
Led by several of the finalists who had raised their concerns in the open letter, CoNZealand Fringe described itself:
“In the tradition of Edinburgh Fringe and other international collateral events, CoNZealand Fringe has been created as a complementary programming series to the annual science fiction convention Worldcon. All our livestreams take place outside core CoNZealand programming hours and are not official CoNZealand programming items. CoNZealand Fringe is not endorsed by CoNZealand.”http://www.conzealandfringe.com/
While virtual conventions lacked the physical restrictions of in-person conventions there were still organisational ones. However, for some, the shift to virtual conventions opened up new opportunities, such as FIYAH magazine announcing its own inaugural online convention to be held in October 2020.
Sadly the online Hugo Award ceremony for 2020 managed to encapsulate the shifting culture within fandom in ways that further heightened issues from old and new perspectives. CoNZealand had early on in its planning scored George R.R. Martin as the celebrity toastmaster for the Hugo Award ceremony. On paper, Martin was an obvious choice given his enormously high profile after the success of Game of Thrones and his long-standing connection with Worldcon. However, the pre-recorded video presentation was overlong and under-edited. This would have been bad enough given that the potential audience for the ceremony was higher than ever but Martin’s presentation included the frequent mispronunciation of names and both he and Robert Silverberg (in his own segment) went to some lengths to defend the legacy of John W. Campbell — a decision that went down poorly with Hugo voters who had picked Jeannette Ng’s 2019 Campbell Award acceptance speech as the winner in the Best Related Work category. The anger was summarised by fan writer Natalie Luhrs:
“What I haven’t forgotten is this: George R.R. Martin repeatedly mispronounced the names of nominees and, in one case, a publication which was nominated. All the nominees were asked to provide pronunciations for their names in advance. The fact that Martin chose not to use that information is disgusting and racist as fuck, as nearly without exception the names he mispronounced were Black and brown. He mispronounced FIYAH, a publication owned, edited, and written by Black people.https://www.pretty-terrible.com/george-r-r-martin-2020-hugo-awards/
This is thoroughly beyond the pale, especially since those segments were pre-recorded and CoNZealand could have asked him to re-do those segments and pronounce peoples’ names correctly. Names are important. They have power.
There was also a whole segment about the Oscar statuette and its crotch. It was gender essentialist and transphobic. It was so gross I don’t even want to talk about it to be honest. CoNZealand tweeted a non-apology apology about it to people who were offended. I’m not particularly gender non-conforming, but if that segment made me feel gross and unwelcome, imagine how it made not only the trans and other gender non-conforming nominees feel, but also all those who were watching. It was a gigantic “fuck you, you’re not welcome here.””
The convention also came under criticism from New Zealand fans for the lack of representation of NZ fandom.
Yet despite these issues, CoNZealand had delivered an extraordinary step in the evolution of Worldcon. A virtual, internationally distributed gathering of fans with all the features of a historic Worldcon (including fannish controversies).
Meanwhile, the culture war had other challenges to present in 2020 but that’s another story.
Next Time: Trump, Puppies and Stop the Steal
-  term stolen from a suggestion by Hampus Eckerman https://twitter.com/motbilder/status/1459280168950935552
-  https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/who-convened-global-study-of-origins-of-sars-cov-2-china-part
-  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Severe_acute_respiratory_syndrome
-  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009_swine_flu_pandemic
-  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2015%E2%80%9316_Zika_virus_epidemic
-  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_African_Ebola_virus_epidemic
-  https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/mar/05/theres-something-out-there-spread-of-disease
-  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Station_Eleven
-  Dean Koontz’s novel The Eyes of Darkness which features a mysterious viral weapon that in the original version is from the Soviet Union and named Gorki-400, had a name change in the late 80’s as the Cold War came to an end. In what would fuel internet speculation decades later, Koontz renamed the virus after a Chinese city instead – picking Wuhan https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Eyes_of_Darkness
-  From the 1970’s we have examples such as The Andromeda Strain film (based on Michael Crichton’s book) which centres scientist on the one hand. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Andromeda_Strain_(film)#Plot On the other, the BBC’s post-apocalyptic series Survivors (from Terry Nation who invented the Daleks) which has a pandemic started by an unamed Asian scientist after a lab accident which is spread by air travel. The plot point is only episode 1 but is shown dramatically in the opening credits of every episode. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Survivors_(1975_TV_series)#Series_1_(1975)
-  I’m not going to examine the evidence against Covid-19 being a bioweapon other than to say that it is substantial. The possibility that it was an accidental leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology which was engaged in (benevolent) research on corona viruses is regarded as unlikely (see note 1) and the main evidence remains that apparent coincidence of original centre of the outbreak in Wuhan and the presence of a major institute specialising in this type of virus.
-  That police tactics in Hong Kong resembled police tactics in the US against Black Lives Matter protestors was not a connection made by many on the right.
-  For example Fox New’s Tucker Carlson in February of 2020 https://www.acsh.org/news/2020/02/20/cell-phones-cancer-and-coronavirus-tucker-carlson-spreads-conspiracy-theories-14584 which also features an early example of 5G mobile phone networks being dragged into the mix
-  I’ll be drawing many examples from Sarah A. Hoyt’s blog as she was the most prolific of the former Sad Puppies in discussing Covid-19 in 2020 https://accordingtohoyt.com/2020/02/10/totalitarianism-and-ignorance/
-  I don’t have the time or space to track Vox Day’s shift towards being essentially pro the Chinese government but this atypical pushback against the predominant conspiracy theory on the right (Covid being China’s fault in some sense) with an alternative conspiracy theory that the anti-Trump US Deep State was behind it all is certainly a milestone https://web.archive.org/web/20211113195523/https://voxday.net/2020/05/04/unz-vs-fox/
-  Finn managed to escape back to the US but not until after attempting to break out onto the runway and having a run in with airport security.
-  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/COVID-19_pandemic_in_New_York_City
-  https://accordingtohoyt.com/2020/02/19/breaking-out-a-guest-post-by-helen-miller-rn/
-  https://accordingtohoyt.com/2020/03/13/a-state-of-madness/
-  The Austrian ski resort of Ischgl was identified as a key point at which Covid spread through Europe https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/05/everyone-was-drenched-in-the-virus-was-this-austrian-ski-resort-a-covid-19-ground-zero
-  https://dailycaller.com/2020/04/07/tucker-carlson-coronavirus-receding-ending-national-lockdown-taboo/
-  https://www.thedailybeast.com/qanon-conspiracy-theorists-magic-cure-for-coronavirus-is-drinking-lethal-bleach?via=newsletter&source=DDMorning
-  https://www.cnbc.com/2021/10/12/uks-herd-immunity-covid-strategy-a-public-health-failure-inquiry.html
-  OK I know that sounds wrong but 2000-2009 inclusive is the first decade in the 21st century (or if you prefer 2001-2010) so 2020 is either the start of the third decade or end of the second. Ordinal numbers are messed up.
-  For example Tennessee’s Libertycon announced on March 30, 2020 that they hoped to still run, only to announce in April that it wouldn’t be able to https://web.archive.org/web/20200512224537/https://libertycon.org/libertycon-33-is-a-go-for-now/ , https://web.archive.org/web/20200512224824/https://libertycon.org/sadly-lc33-for-2020-is-cancelled/
-  https://www.dragoncon.org/mediarelations/
-  https://twitter.com/suyidavies/status/1160135631101501440
-  http://file770.com/israel-worldcon-bid-being-explored/, http://file770.com/a-worldcon-in-saudi-arabia/, http://file770.com/chengdu-worldcon-bid-announces-ambassadors/
-  http://file770.com/conzealand-virtual-worldcon-plans-and-new-membership-rates/
-  Comments at File 770 http://file770.com/group-sends-letter-of-concern-to-conzealand-programming/#comment-1199867
-  https://theconvention.fiyahlitmag.com/2020/07/01/announcing-fiyahcon-2020/
-  http://file770.com/new-zealand-fan-organization-comments-on-conzealand/