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CORK, Ireland — Joe McCarron was clearly struggling to breathe. His voice is barely audible when the doctor leans over and earnestly tells him: “You have the right to decide what to do. You are barely able to breathe. We want you to stay.”
McCarron is sitting in a wheelchair in a corridor of the Letterkenny University Hospital in County Donegal, Ireland. It is Sept. 14 and McCarron is at the center of a tug-of-war between the doctors who want to keep him in the ICU to treat a severe case of COVID-19 and a group of sovereign citizen activists who had come to “rescue” McCarron.
“We came to Letterkenny to rescue my friend because they were trying to kill him,” one of the activists, an Italian man named Antonio Mureddu, tells McCarron, who appears confused and distressed throughout the ordeal.
"We are walking home from the hospital and nobody is going to stop us. We are going home. We are saving the lives of the people," Mureddu declares before telling McCarron: "If you stay here, they are going to fucking kill you.”
Ultimately McCarron left the hospital and was taken home. But days later the virus had spread to his brain, and he was rushed by ambulance back to the hospital and put on a ventilator. On Friday, McCarron died in the hospital.
The incident is the latest example of a growing trend around the globe of anti-vaccine activists, sovereign citizens, and conspiracy theorists attempting to undermine medical staff at hospitals claiming that vaccines don’t work and in some cases claiming that hospital staff are purposely working to prevent COVID-19 sufferers from recovering.
Earlier this month, anti-vaxxer and QAnon believer Veronica Wolski became the center of a campaign by her supporters—spearheaded by pro-Trump lawyer Lin Wood—to harass staff at a Chicago hospital who refused to administer ivermectin because it hasn’t been approved as a treatment for COVID-19. Wolski ultimately died in hospital.
The group who “rescued” McCarron from the hospital were members of the Common Law Information Centre, a local group formed in the wake of the last recession to help property developers.
Sovereign citizen or common law groups believe themselves above the laws of a country, and their popularity has increased during the pandemic as government imposed strict lockdown measures, which these groups viewed as a threat to their personal freedom.
Like many common law or sovereign citizen movements, the Donegal group pivoted during the pandemic to boosting anti-vax conspiracies and disinformation. McCarron himself was a member of the group and he had refused to wear a mask or get vaccinated prior to contracting COVID.
Right at the beginning of the video from the hospital, Mureddu thanks “Professor Dolores Cahill” for spending hours on the phone to “sort this one out.”.
Cahill holds a Ph.D. in immunology and was until earlier this month a professor at University College Dublin. However, she is also one of the superstars of the anti-vaxxer community in Europe, with a huge and loyal group of followers. During the pandemic, she has increasingly incorporated sovereign-citizen language when urging followers to resist lockdown measures, vaccines, and directions from hospital staff.
“Her credentials have given her this `veneer of credibility, and she's been able to use us and take advantage of it to propel herself to stardom within the COVID-denier and COVID-skeptic movement,” Aoife Gallagher, a researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a counter-extremist think tank, told VICE News.
Leading the group taking McCarron from the hospital was Mureddu, an Italian who is living in Ireland. He first came to the attention of far-right researchers in 2019 when he attempted to hold a meeting in Galway in support of the Italian far-right party Lega Nord.
He is part of the “Freeman of the Land” movement, which is a sovereign citizen-adjacent group that believes laws don’t apply to them because they didn’t sign a contract with the state and its various arms.
“The video of him with McCarron is obviously an escalation in his behavior, but at the same time it’s the logical conclusion of what we’ve been seeing over the course of the pandemic from COVID deniers,” Bryan Wall, a journalist who tracks the far-right in Ireland for The Beacon, told VICE News.
“There’s a delusional arrogance from people like Mureddu who believe that they have all the answers and are the only ones who can save people from whatever the supposed threat is. But it’s all based on conspiracy theories and misinformation. Mureddu cites bogus legal arguments while attempting to blame healthcare staff for McCarron’s condition at the time. And now a man is dead,” Wall said.
Following McCarron’s readmission to hospital last week, his wife issued a statement apologizing for “the actions of Joe’s so-called reckless friends earlier in the week.” But McCarron’s former colleagues at the Common Law Information Centre have clearly not changed their minds.
At McCarron’s funeral on Sunday, five members of the group entered the church without masks in breach of government guidelines and sat together in one pew, not socially distanced. The group was escorted from the church after the police were called.
A spokesperson for the Center who answered the phone but didn’t identify themselves told VICE News the group “has decided not to make any comment.”
Mureddu has disappeared since McCarron’s death, though he continues to post sporadically on his Telegram channel. A police spokesperson said they are investigating “a number of recent incidents which occurred at Letterkenny University Hospital.” The Irish Independent reported this week that police in Donegal have been warned to approach Murddeu with caution was he “was violent” and could be spreading COVID-19
Despite McCarron’s tragic death, members of some Irish-based Telegram channels dedicated to opposing lockdowns, continue to spread conspiracies, speculating whether McCarron was in fact a crisis actor designed to further a “globalist agenda.”
“I would like to think this would make COVID-deniers reconsider their beliefs. But even in the immediate aftermath of McCarron’s death, they are already doubling down,” Wall said. “It’s a sad but dangerous state of affairs. Mureddu’s role in the death needs to be properly investigated and he needs to be held accountable.”