Naveed Qureshi always knew his job was important, but as a telecoms engineer working in East London, it didn’t always feel that way. He spent each week patrolling his patch of the city, riding out in his van to maintain the miles upon miles of copper wire and fiber optic cable that kept the capital online. Schools, hospitals, and businesses all relied on this invisible network, and with the pandemic forcing people to work from home, there was more strain on the system than ever before. His job felt undeniably essential. He just wished it wasn’t dangerous, too.

Since the UK entered lockdown in March, engineers like Qureshi had unwillingly found themselves on the front line of a strange global crusade. Conspiracy theorists had linked the spread of the novel coronavirus to the installation of new 5G mobile networks, with some claiming the cellular network weakened the immune system and allowed the virus to thrive, while others said 5G masts were broadcasting the virus through the ether (all “crackpot” claims, to quote the UK government). The thing these theories have in common is that they give people someone to blame. And though some of that paranoia comes from a reasonable mistrust of large corporations and institutions, the end target was always workers like Qureshi, out on the street in high-visibility vests, just trying to do their job.