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Of conspiracy theories and COVID-19

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Bill Gates, Wuhan Laboratory, 5 G- Connections, the US Military, Big Pharmaceutical Companies, and our own home-spawned twists have all become clichés in conspiracy theories around COVID-19. Since the invasion of the human race with the novel coronavirus, more than half of the global population has been on one form of lockdown or the other and the other half is coming out of lockdown. Globally, in May alone more than ninety percent of aeroplanes were off the air. They were in storage. Still on the global scale, the International Labour organization (ILO) has estimated that due to the rampage of the novel coronavirus, between April and June of this year, about 400 million full- time jobs have been lost.

The coronaviruses are respiratory viruses that are sometimes responsible for milder respiratory infections like the influenza and common cold. Seven types of coronaviruses infect humans but only three of them have infected humans on a pandemic or epidemic scale. Two of these three have been responsible for the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-COV) and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-COV). These two epidemics; MERS and SARS were quickly neutralized by prompt and collective global efforts. However, the present strain of the coronavirus; SARS-COV-2 causes a disease known as COVID-19. It is responsible for the global pandemic that has infected more than 10 million people and killed more than five hundred thousand people. The USA has the grim honor of having the most number of infected cases followed by Brazil. At other times, Italy, Spain and France had that dismal honor but the three countries have since stabilized and are gradually opening up their economies.

The novel coronavirus like the adamant, uninvited guest that has overstayed its welcome and refused to leave, has become the metaphorical thorn in the flesh. Like the chameleon that keeps changing its colors, SARS-COV-2 has proven to be a most challenging opponent. Just when we think we understand the pathology, a new revelation surfaces that the virus can have a longer incubation period than previously thought and that the immune system goes into overdrive causing multi systemic damage that lasts beyond the infective period. Even children are not spared and have presented with symptoms suggestive of Kawasaki-like disease.

The present pandemic has also wreaked havoc on world economies, prompting several economies to either close or lay off thousands of their staff. The Merriam Webster dictionary has also been impacted. The word power house has either updated or introduced neologisms. These are words like social distancing, super-spreader and self-quarantine. The word power house also added new abbreviations like nCoV for novel coronavirus. The French have taken it a notch higher by determining the linguistic gender of COVID-19 and the coronavirus. The French Academy has concluded that COVID-19 is feminine with the definitive article “la” and coronavirus is masculine with the corresponding “le.”However, regardless of whether COVID-19 is feminine or masculine, the entire world is in agreement on one thing; COVID-19 has overstayed its presence on the world stage. It is an unseen enemy that cannot be ignored. It has taken world leaders by surprise and even dictators have had to take a back seat for the novel coronavirus to take the stage. Whether we like it or not, we’ve got to learn to live with it. On the surface, it might seem like we are fighting just one unseen enemy, but in reality, we are fighting two unseen enemies; the coronavirus pandemic and the droves of conspiracy theories around the virus. Conspiracy theories are deadly ideologies birthed around unusual events. They are usually erroneous, alternative interpretations of these events.

They are circulated through social media platforms and usually scapegoat the political elites as the beneficiaries of the outcomes of these shadowy phenomena. These theories are usually propagated by a fringe group but can be quickly hijacked and propelled into the minds of major players. The eventual outcomes of these ideologies is that their only saving grace is to disobey the government orders or laws that have been put in place to curtail the unusual phenomenon. Such recklessness usually ends up putting entire populations at risk. If the purposes of conspiracy theories are actualized, the consequences can be disastrous, endangering many lives and even lead to death.

Classical examples can be found in the conspiracy theories around COVID-19. People who believe in conspiracy theories readily accept any alternative explanation of the events around them. They do not critically analyze the impossibility of the claims in these theories. The danger of conspiracy theories around COVID-19 is that promoters of these conjugations, go against every preventive measure set by the government to curb the spread of the virus. They do not wear masks because they believe it will reduce their immunity or that the masks have been tampered with by the Establishment. The Establishment can represent local and foreign state actors. The conspiracy theorists flaunt the lockdown order, do not socially distant themselves, don’t observe respiratory hygiene and they do not wash their hands regularly. They behave as if the virus never existed. They disregard all the government rules and persuasions to prevent the spread of the virus.

Their beliefs put the rest of the population at risk. Residents of California, Texas and Florida recently protested against the lockdown as a government over reach. Several of the protesters did not wear masks. These three states have reported increasingly, daily soaring numbers of confirmed cases. Their governors have had to reassess the easing of the lockdown and made wearing of face masks in public spaces compulsory. Before the advent of smart phones, conspiracy theorists depended on pigeons, spies, paper notes, secret codes and secret agents to pass their covert messages. Today, conspiracy messages can be passed to you from the electronic device right in the palm of your hand and you would not be any wiser for it.

What makes them believable and who are the proponents and believers of these movements? What fuels conspiracy theories?

To be continued from tomorrow

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


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