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Coronavirus, conspiracy theories and ‘end time’ eschatology

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The world is tragically under siege, held ransom by a virus that is not a living organism, but has killed thousands of people and instilled abject fear in the lives of the entire world. Many months ago, if anyone had predicted, or even prophesied that humanity would be held hostage by the fear of a virus, such a prognosticator or prophet would have laughed to scorn.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus stole upon the world’s consciousness from the infinitesimal corner of its abode, and the past six months had led the world from moments of confusion about the virus’s escape from Wuhan to incredulity about its decimation of human lives and then utter fear as the virus became a grim reaper across the world.

There is no one, across the world, that has not been affected. The news of deaths and infections and the collapse of infrastructure are now daily items on social media and on the traditional media. Statistics of death and destruction have become a reality of how frail humans truly are. Many have lost friends, relatives and families.

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Many are presently under the grip of terror as they battle with infection of a virus that is unlike any the world has seen before now. Businesses, religious institutions, economic institutions and so on have closed down. Countries have lockdown entire districts and states. Heads of government are battling with the dilemma whether to allow their national economies to continue functioning or allow people to self-isolate. Either horn of the dilemma will lead to terrible consequences. The dilemma is even more critical in underdeveloping contexts like Nigeria where infrastructural development is near absent, and more than 65% of the national economy resides in the informal sector where to survive is to keep working the streets and motor parks and markets and shops and other small enterprises and endeavors. Any thought of an extended lockdown risks the ire of the citizens.

Only a few people across the world would not have thought of the end of the world. Such a thought would be justified given the speculation, especially by the World Health Organisation, that the mortality rate of the COVID-19 could surpass that of the Second World War. And many governments, even of the advanced and industrialized world, are scampering because their sophisticated healthcare infrastructures are already buckling under the weight of tragedy. A surfeit of news items, fake and genuine, has inundated the news media about the many dimensions of the virus and its deadly impacts. There is particularly lots of speculations about the possible curative or preventive measures against the virus. There is currently an ongoing robust discourse on the possibility of traditional curative measure working where orthodox medicine has failed. However, people across the world have also been asking questions as to the origin of the coronavirus, and why it began in Wuhan, China. Is this global tragedy the result of a laboratory mistake, a culinary error or a masterly geopolitical strategy deployed by China against the United States and the rest of the world?

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This question has generated a conspiracy theory industry that has kept social media agog since the pandemic started. The nature of conspiracy theory is that it feeds on falsehoods, partial truths, rumors and silence. It also thrives on the ignorance of what is half-understood or not understood at all. It is so easy to see how religion can insinuate itself into the narratives of the coronavirus, and facilitate an eschatological dimension about what we know concerning the coronavirus. A fundamentalist, for instance, would see our inability to curb the virus as the handiwork of God working to either punish the world or call us to repentance. More intellectually oriented eschatology are oriented towards a rational understanding of our world. Stephen Hawking, for instance, enables us to understand the universe and the possibility of its demise. Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ is less eschatological than ideological. And it is this ideological dimension that has caught on the imagination of the world.

Could China be contesting the imperial design of the United States with her own imperial design? At stake in this question is the dynamics of the neoliberal capitalism and its hold upon the world. Capitalism, since its emergence, has always raised the challenge of global domination. And non-capitalist societies like the former USSR, Eastern Europe and China have always been at the forefront of resisting this domination. Unfortunately, Africa also stands at the critical margin of this global political and ideological undercurrent, and this is essential because of her strategic utility in terms of human capital and material resources. Let us categorize the conspiration theories into two, both emerging from the activities of the superpowers to achieve some form of dominance over the rest of the world. The first one is the “global depopulation” strategy, engineered by the United States, to undermine the population of the third world as a means of addressing security challenges to North America. The second one is the 5G race between the United States and China. Several videos, essays and weblinks have inundated social media on the relationship between 5G and the emergence of the coronavirus. Indeed, a super conspiration theory will link the two design of depopulation and the coronavirus, and even add a religious dimension: we are near the end time, and the anti-Christ and the 666 are about to manifest!

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Let me begin to unpack all these. First, the danger. Conspiracy theories can kill. And this is especially so in this time of fear and anxiety that people are looking desperately for certainties that will make survival possible. The large level of information out there in the heart and mind of people across the world have the potential to kill even faster than the pandemic of the coronavirus. This is why some have called the deluge of damaging information an “infodemic.” For instance, the chloroquine that is still untested with regard to this virus has killed so many already simply because it went viral as the wonder drug that can kill the coronavirus. And there are so many elites who have pressed the masses into false consciousness about whether or not the virus even exists. Religious leaders and some leaders of thought abound who insisted that the virus is “bourgeois” or the virus meant for sinners. But then, there are times that conspiracy theories have some basis in reality. Take the existing geopolitical back and forth that had been unraveling between the United States and China before the pandemic. It is very clear that whoever arrives at the full deployment of the 5G first has a lot to control, from the capital to job to imperial power.

It is doubtful from critical analysis and the unfolding of events that our eschatological anxiety has any basis. The world is not ending? Even the great scientists, including the late Stephen Hawking, are not agreed on the nature of the universe or its end. There are so many scriptural books containing coded knowledge, and there are also so many mystical orders with several understanding of what will befall humans. All these are however subject to interpretational dynamics that we may not even begin to unravel in a moment like this. I mean by this that the concern of eschatology is so otherworldly as to take our mind away from the clear and present danger of the pandemic that stares us right in the faces. Prophecies and predictions have limited values when the virus is already on the loose.

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Indeed, there will be an end to the world as we know it if we refuse to attend critically to the COVID-19 and its ravages, or if we play politics with its brutal incidence. So far, over a million people across the world are infected, and who knows how many more are asymptomatic? And the coronavirus is slowly encroaching on Nigeria. It is not a conspiracy that will win this war against the coronavirus; it is solid knowledge, solid medical knowledge that will produce a vaccine that concerted global medical and political efforts will then deploy across the globe.On the other hand, the pandemic has also evidently created a stark awareness of how grossly underprepared the entire world is for an epidemic of such a global proportion. And this makes nonsense of the usual difference between advanced and less advanced countries. The COVID-19 has leveled such ideological difference. We were all not any prepared. And this is despite the several indications and warnings we might have had. Throw in the prophecies and the predictions if you want.

One of the most solid prognosticatory analysis of this pandemic was Bill Gates’ 2015 Ted Talk where he essentially predicted that the world would not be ready for microbial epidemic. He was right! Maybe the United States and China were too engrossed in the 5G race to see the future that Mr. Gates was pointing at. And the other nations of the world were also too busy with the important business of governance to notice such an intangible thing as a virus.

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Bill Gates’ and other significant assessment of this virus have not lost their importance. Some new disasters may still be looming in the near future. That possibility requires deep policy forecasting and scenario building that will initiate comprehensive plans and blueprints on early warning systems and rapid response dynamics.

We have all been forced to take notice now. Everything from 5G to Boko Haram has been out on hold. And behind our barricades, we all now must give some serious thoughts to a coming post-COVID-19 future where we will never again have to go through this terrible and tragic dispensation of fear and anxiety and gruesome deaths. The entire world has been humbled. It is time, even in the midst of the tremendous efforts to fight back, to humbly lick our tragic wounds and rethink what a truly human future will look like. It must be a future where human arrogance towards nature must be tamed. It must be a future where we would no longer shrug at our own dehumanization, or allow any other thing to dehumanize us.

Olaopa, a retired Federal Permanent Secretary & Professor of Public Administration
wrote from the National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru, Jos.

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