Campaigner’s background in academia has helped convince people to listen to her questionable views
Now that Joe McCarron has been buried, the video that made the 67-year-old Donegal man an international news story last month is excruciating to watch.
In the film that went viral shortly after anti-vaccine campaigners coerced him into leaving hospital against medical advice, there is a moment when the camera is pointed directly at his face. He looks uncomfortable. He is visibly struggling to breathe.
Beside him, in the hyped-up, emotive language of a vigilante, anti-vax campaigner Antonio Mureddu chivvies him toward discharge. “If you stay here, they’re going to f**king kill you, Joe,” he says.
On film, he cites the authority of the controversial figure of Dr Dolores Cahill — an anti-vaccine, anti-mask and anti-lockdown campaigner, who up until last month was a professor of medicine at UCD.
“She has been on the phone all day, trying to sort this out,” he says.
Meanwhile, McCarron’s doctor tries calmly to appeal to his sense of reason.
“I want you to stay. What he [Mureddu] is saying is wrong and very dangerous,” he says. “I’m not lying to you, you could die.”
For a few moments, faced with these two opposing conversations, the conflict is crystal clear on McCarron’s face. He hesitates, paralysed by fear.
He looks, as the idiom goes, like a rabbit caught in the headlights. But Mureddu’s kinetic energy proves to have the stronger pull. That and, no doubt, the promise of the comfort of his own living room, so he allows himself to be rolled out of the hospital toward his home.
In that moment, it’s not that difficult to understand his choice.
Through the other door, the one indicated by his gravely concerned doctor, lay the terrors of induced coma and ICU. To any Covid patient, ICU admission alone represents very nearly the worst-case scenario. It’s right up there before death.
As it happened, McCarron didn’t escape ICU. Nor did he escape death. Only 24 hours after Mureddu filmed him again, celebrating his ‘lucky’ escape at home, his condition swiftly deteriorated and he was readmitted to Letterkenny University Hospital and intubated. Ten days later, he had died from his condition, leaving his family to try to make sense of it all.
McCarron had been a carer to his wife, Una. In a statement released by the family, she seemed to have realised too late the extent to which she and her husband had been manipulated.
If she had, for a while at least, believed Mureddu to be a hero, he must now seem like a predator.
To what extent did Joe McCarron’s decision to leave hospital contribute to his eventual death? That question will no doubt be under scrutiny. A garda investigation is under way. Does the role played by Mureddu qualify as reckless endangerment?
To my mind, a more important question concerns the part played by Dolores Cahill.
Before Covid, Cahill was an immunologist and UCD professor, virtually unheard of outside of academic and medical circles. She was politically active through the right-wing Irish Freedom Party.
In two short years, she has become someone with an international profile, the subject of debates and magazine features. She is part of a small but insidious international group of scientists who, despite their training, circulate falsehoods and discredited theories.
They claim to be freedom fighters, this group. With their back-up, the words of cranks like Antonio Mureddu become credible.
In the last video filmed before his death, McCarron referred to the fact he was receiving counsel from the best scientific minds “in the land”. Was it Cahill he was referring to?
Since the beginning of the pandemic, she has consistently and noisily made a variety of claims that fly wildly in the face of medical consensus.
She has said that for healthy young people, Covid amounts to “a hoax”. She has claimed vitamin supplements can prevent Covid. She has claimed mandatory face masks for children cause them to be deprived of oxygen. She has declared RNA vaccines against Covid to be dangerous.
“If you paid me 10 million,” she has said, “I wouldn’t take it. I would go to prison first. If someone vaccinated me [with an RNA vaccine], I would charge them with attempted murder.”
Cahill’s views, unsupported by any evidence at all, are indefensible. Hers is not a valid second opinion — it goes directly against the principle of burden of proof in science.
Unfortunately, there is an anxious, unsettled public out there, only too willing to listen to her.
One video she recorded last Christmas has racked up over one million views on YouTube. Perhaps this explains her motivation to keep talking?
But her reckless self-interest is endangering lives, most often among a cohort of the population who, like McCarron, have not the benefit of her privilege and education. To the outside observer, it looks very much like malignant narcissism, the blatant attention-seeking of her campaign, which preys on social groups who feel disenfranchised and powerless.
Even if she was not directly implicated in McCarron’s death, her influence touched him, and no doubt many thousands like him.
Like a pied piper in a white coat, she’s guilty of leading her vulnerable followers to disaster.