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Of conspiracy theories and COVID-19 – Part 2

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Continued from yesterday

Anxiety over some phenomenon that appears to be surreal. The conspiracy theory that is created around the phenomenon serves as a rebuttal of the actual event and the promoters take comfort in their minds that the alternative explanations they have created are actually the real deal. Usually, they center the conspiracy theory around a chosen villain or scapegoat as the one behind all the woes of the extant phenomenon.

In this pandemic, Bill Gates has become the villain. One of the conspiracy theories around Bill Gates is that he wants to promote his own vaccination agenda to depopulate and control the world. Bill Gates has become the dartboard that the conspiracy adherents are targeting because he is one of the most powerful elites in the world and five years ago, he gave a TED talk on the unpreparedness of the world against a pandemic.

By the 2ndof July, that TED talk had been viewed 29 million times and had become a lightning rod in one of the infamous ideologies of all times. As if to give credence to these absurd ideas, Bill Gates has actually promised to give billions of dollars to the development of the anti-coronavirus vaccine. However, people should remember that Bill Gates has equally donated to many philanthropic courses including malaria and HIV. Therefore, giving towards the development of the anti-coronavirus vaccine should not be seen as an aberration.

Another conspiracy theory is that the virus escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, China and that it was man-made. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas has publicly suggested that the virus escaped from a high-security biochemical lab in Wuhan, China. Scientists have sequenced the virus and determined it was not man-made. Another high-profile name that has joined this band of conspiracy theorists is President Trump. He strongly suggested that he had evidence the virus came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The American National Intelligence Agency was quick to debunk Trump’s insinuations.

China’s heavy censorship on information and the non-transparency about the spread and fatality of the virus at the onset has added fuel to the spread of conspiracy theories. Further, China’s admission that it would not allow an investigative panel into the country until after the pandemic is insidious. Some critics of China that know the conspiracy theories are false are deliberating propagating these fallacious narratives. A fugitive Chinese billionaire is one example of the communicators of these conspiracies. Mr. Guo, has his own media platforms that propagate many of these conspiracy theories about China and the novel coronavirus. The 5 G telecommunications networks have not been left out of the conspiracy theories. Online platforms in Europe and the USA have spearheaded the fallacy that COVID-19 cases are rife in regions with 5 G networks. However, some of the images used on these online platforms were not of 5 G masts but of fibre optic locations.

Further, some images were deliberately manipulated. In the United Kingdom, almost one hundred phone masts have been purposively destroyed by adherents of these theories. Sometimes, the engineers in charge of their installations were harassed. These masts were targeted because of the erroneous belief that COVID-19 is a direct result of the 5 G network. The 5 G technology is the latest generation in wireless communication. The conspiracy theorists believe that the 5 G frequency is able to spread the virus in concentric, wireless transmission, like a miasma. This belief is further strengthened by an image of a lighthouse on the new British twenty-pound note that was widely claimed to be that of a 5 G Tower. On the contrary, the images on the monetary pound note are the rotunda of the Tate Gallery in London and a Lighthouse in the town of Margate, England.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian has also promoted the propaganda that the American Military exported the virus to China. This might be connected to the presence of the US Military in China during the Military World Games. The October 2019 Military World Games took place in Wuhan, China with more than 140 countries participating including American Military. The Chinese spokesperson has suggested that the American athletes in attendance brought the virus to China. Other conspiracy theories around the novel coronavirus are that it is an entire plot by the big pharmaceutical companies to make a profit.

The pharmaceutical companies have made some insane profits off life- saving drugs. A case in point is that of Martin Shkreli who in 2015, increased the price of an anti-parasitic drug from $13.5 (Thirteen dollars and fifty cents) to $750 (Seven hundred and fifty dollars) after obtaining the sole manufacturing drug license.

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Daraprim in combination with other drugs was used to treat parasitic infections in vulnerable patients like those with AIDS. Martin Shkreli also increased the price of a drug used to treat cystinuria from $1.50 (one dollar and fifty cents) to $30 (thirty dollars). Along with other offenses, he was persecuted for selling Daraprim at more than 55 times the cost price, that’s almost a profit of six thousand percent! Such careless disregard for life and lack of moral compass in profiteering from the sick has left some people concluding that the virus is a plot by the big pharmaceutical companies. The perpetrators of these theories are not just the people on the fringes of society. It cuts through the political and academic class. Unfortunately, opportunists join the conspiracy band for their own personal agenda. Usually, such people will post the propaganda on their website to increase traffic and ultimately increase the money flow to their websites. The more unbelievable the conspiracy, the more the traffic. And sometimes, it is to sell their own books and ultimately make money. It is not always about the money but gaining support for their own ideologies as in the anti-vaccinators and those against climate change.

Conspiracy theories allow the fears and anxieties of people to distil into some finite, plausible explanations that they can control even though it may sound improbable. These interpretations provide a safety net against the backdrop of the unexplainable, anxiety-inducing events around them. The pandemic has left many people unemployed, confused and looking for answers but not answers from a government they do not trust. Just like superstitions are created to explain a certain phenomenon, the human mind needs to make sense of these events. However, such explanations are usually believed by those who fail to analyze the information being fed to them. Conspiracy theories are not usually carried by mainstream media but are prominently featured on social media platforms. However, some major news outlets initially suggested that the virus was man-made in a lab in China or that it was a plot by the Chinese to dominate the world. These media outlets have since put away such thoughts. The proponents of these theories belief in their ideas. Trying to dissuade them will only serve as proof to consolidate their belief. The danger with these misleading narratives is that it cuts across all classes and collectively, the promoters do not adhere to preventive measures to stop the spread of the disease.

It is even more dangerous when they have a considerable number of followers on social media platforms and a few clicks can gather a million views in as little as two hours. Since it is almost futile to dissuade them, we can do several things to hinder the spread of these fallacies. If we get a message from social media and reputable news outlets are not carrying it, let’s stop, think and ask ourselves if this fleeting information is true. We should not forward it. If you’re still not convinced that it is a conspiracy theory, then look for clues. They like to quote big names from political organizations and academia. Go to the website of that organization. Is the information available on that site? Sometimes, a once reputable person that might have fallen into disrepute but is not popularly known to have fallen from grace would write a book in support of these theories. Unfortunately, humans tend to believe everything in print forgetting that it can contain deliberate misinformation.

To be continued tomorrow

Obilade, is a medical doctor and an Associate professor of Public Health, wrote from Abuja.


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