How Geoff Berner’s Jewish heritage informs his calling out of COVID policy
Geoff Berner has always been the kind of guy you could count on for an uncompromising take on what ails the world – the kind of guy who will unfailingly side with artistic virtue whenever it comes in conflict with the demands of capitalism.
He famously performed a set at the Winnipeg Folk Festival in which he pointed out the Nazi origins of festival sponsor Volkswagen. And he protested the British Columbia government’s funding of the 2010 Olympics with a song called “The Dead Children Were Worth It,” a reference to the government’s decision to bankroll the games while closing a coroner’s office that investigated the deaths of children.
He’s the kind of guy you’d definitely want fighting with you rather than against you. And lately, the people he’s been passionately fighting for are those at increased risk from COVID-19 – people who have been forced to isolate from society to protect themselves from the virus, as the rest of the world carries on with the same poor ventilation and lack of masking that existed before the pandemic.
“I’ve made my career out of studying and presenting Jewish music, specifically, you know, my Ashkenazi Eastern European Jewish culture,” Geoff explained.
“you’re always asking yourself like, ‘Okay, So how did [the Holocaust] happen? … And the answer is they started with people with disabilities, and they basically did what we’re doing.”
“That involves a lot of talking about the Holocaust and the war and stuff like that. And you’re always asking yourself like, ‘Okay, So how did this happen? How did Germany, the most civilized, culturally and technologically advanced country in the world develop this group madness where they just started to murder the disabled and then, you know, Jews and Roma people and communists and others? And the answer is they started with people with disabilities, and they basically did what we’re doing. You know? They were like, ‘You know, some people – it’s just not worthwhile for them to be alive, and they cost a lot of resources, and so it’s probably better if they are just euthanized.’ … That’s what Canada is doing. When somebody dies of COVID … they always stipulate if someone has underlying conditions, so to speak, because they’re implying that, if you’re healthy, you’ve got nothing to worry about – which is just horrific. That’s eugenics.”
‘This is the thing that was the Holocaust’
Geoff connects the government’s treatment of those vulnerable to COVID-19 with its decision to expand access to medical assistance in dying (MAID) while driving down social assistance benefits relative to inflation, resulting in a number of highly-publicized requests for MAID from people who are not terminally ill but who simply can’t handle they hellish poverty they are now forced to live in.
“It’s murder,” Geoff said bluntly.
“We’re in a phase of our society that’s very similar to the 30s in many ways. And, you know, as a Jew who’s studied this extensively, I have to say, ‘This is the thing that was the Holocaust.’ It’s mass media ordering people to believe things, repeating things often enough. ‘We just have to learn to live with COVID. We just have to learn to live with COVID. You just have to go live your life. Go live your life. Go live.’ Just repeat it enough times and then people on the street will start to say it too. And as if they came to that conclusion.”
In fact, Canada posted a record number of COVID deaths in 2022
Geoff has been terrified, he said, by the number of artists who have answered the call to carry on as usual, playing gigs in crowded clubs and coffee houses with no mask requirements and poor ventilation.
“They’re playing Pied Piper for a deadly disabling disease that’s killing people and saddling them with symptoms,” he said.
Artists have traditionally been regarded as healers and free-thinkers, but now they are doing the bidding of our leaders, he added.
Now they’re inviting people out to concerts where a single infected audience member will spread the illness to others who will spread it to vulnerable family members, quite possibly killing someone in the process.
Geoff also cautioned artists that they’re putting themselves at risk too.
“You see people dying and getting strokes, canceling tours because they have a sudden illness. You know, they got Ringo, for crying out loud. It got Lisa Marie Presley, Elvis’ daughter, and still. It got Justin Bieber, and still. And Justin Bieber’s wife in her 20s had a debilitating stroke.”
I should be clear, Geoff is drawing inferences here from research that suggests that people who have recovered from COVID-19, whether or not they have been hospitalized, are at increased risk of a number of health complications, including cardiovascular disease. There is obviously no way to definitively know the cause of Lisa Marie Presley’s cardiac arrest, and Justin Bieber’s wife has said that her transient ischemic attack was caused by a congenital heart defect. However, Geoff points out that, by refusing to discuss the long-term risks of COVID, public health officials have left it open to anti-vaxxers to claim that sudden health problems and deaths in seemingly healthy young people are caused by the vaccine, when in fact, research suggests that at least some new-onset health problems are more likely to be caused by the virus itself.
Some people have been critical of Geoff’s criticism of artists, noting that Geoff’s spouse is a physician, someone who is able to support the family on a single income, so Geoff faces no real risk from refusing work – unlike many artists for whom gigging is their sole means of paying rent and putting food on the table.
“The people have power, right? And the main power they have, if they’re not among the powerful, is withdrawing their labour.”
Geoff told me he’s less judgmental of those who feel pressured to play by their financial situations. But he said he hoped that, if he were in their shoes, he would choose to take a day job rather than getting back on stage in unsafe conditions.
Collectively, he said, artists need to be fighting for mask mandates and proper ventilation at shows, and for CO2 monitors to be visible in the rooms so that audience members can verify that the air they are breathing is similar in virus concentration to what they’d inhale outdoors.
“The people have power, right?” he said. “And the main power they have, if they’re not among the powerful, is withdrawing their labour.”
He chastised outdoor folk festivals for taking no serious precautions to protect vulnerable members of their audiences.
“There wasn’t even a section of the folk festivals that they set aside for immune compromised people where masks are required,” he said.
“They do all this talk of, like, valuing diversity and equity. It was all a lie because nobody seems to want to lift a single finger to make these events accessible in any way.”
Geoff has so far written and recorded four songs that one might describe as COVID protest songs.
“Bodies Don’t Lie Easy” speaks to the reality that people are being told COVID is over, but Geoff questions where the evidence is that that’s true. Where are the ceremonies and memorials for the victims?
“Instead, everyone is just acting like [they’ve] been ordered to forget and behave as if it never happened at all,” he said. “And real people keep dying. And the bodies are piling up.”
“Bitter Spring” is a number dedicated to a friend of Geoff’s, public health expert Phil Jackson, who died in the early days of the pandemic when people still believed it might be over by summer.
“I Can’t Believe,” which is mostly sung in Yiddish, simply articulates Geoff’s disbelief in everything that’s happened around COVID.
And Geoff’s most recent number, “Nagging Cough” is about that new addition to our sonic landscape since the pandemic began.
“Everywhere I go, I can hear somebody coughing somewhere,” Geoff said. “And people are acting like that’s not strange. It’s like they’ve heard it for so long, they don’t hear it anymore. And so the nagging cough is like … a metaphor for a lot of things. … Like, if things are going so well, if we’ve done such a good job, then for instance why did all those planes just get canceled? Why is there a 10-hour wait at Children’s? … It’s … the nagging question of the nagging cough.”