OPINION: What’s caused this devastating pandemic that’s so far cost at least 207,000 lives (and it’s hardly begun) and wrecked the global economy? If, like me, you’ve been on the receiving end of a blizzard of bizarre messages claiming to reveal the truth behind the pandemic you might be forgiven for feeling confused, so here’s your handy guide to what isn’t the cause and what is.
Right from the start misinformation was rife: there was no virus; the disease was like flu and wouldn’t cause significant harm; emails offered baseless cures and treatments; and conspiracy theories spread like wildfire about its origin.
It turns out that many who circulated such misinformation have a history of casting doubt on climate science or seeking to debate issues that were already laid to rest within the scientific community, according to DeSmog.org:
“The decades that fossil fuel companies spent funding organisations that sought to undermine the conclusions of credible climate scientists and building up doubt about science itself ultimately created a network of professional science deniers who are now deploying some of the same skills they honed on climate against the public health crisis at the centre of our attention today.”
Some of this misinformation was/is channelled by presidents Trump and Bolsanaro. Others by think tanks, experts (some self-proclaimed), academics, and professional right-wing activists who are also climate change denialists.
After taking apart all of these arguments, DeSmog asserts: “COVID denial should forever discredit climate science deniers”.
Former UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s brother Piers Corbyn tweeted that the pandemic is a “world population cull” backed by Bill Gates and George Soros, who had secretly bankrolled the Chinese with American dollars to create a bio-weapon. He called for them, along with Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, to be sent to Guantanamo Bay.
A lot of people have been forwarding David Icke’s video, which is astonishing given that here is a narcissistic con artist who believes the moon is hollow and the world is ruled by shape shifting reptiles from another planet, and who was banned from entering Australia because he’s a Holocaust denier who argued the September 11 terrorist attacks were a government hoax.
If other people’s motivations for spreading pandemic misinformation are political, what is Icke’s? Easy. Self-marketing: I’m sure his book and merchandising sales are doing very well, thank you.
Meanwhile, Bill Gates himself has commercial reasons for his pledge to produce a vaccine, which I guess is acceptable, but this has been hijacked by both Russian propaganda channel RT and David Icke to hint/claim that Gates would insert human-controlling nanobots into the vaccine. Again, nonsense.
Many right-wingers are attacking lockdown measures, and not just Republicans in US states. A friend in Berlin tells me that right wing groups in Germany “don’t quite call for a total lifting of restrictions but query every single measure, along the lines of, if that’s allowed, why not that”.
Personal freedom is touted by these groups as a more fundamental right than social consensus for the sake of health, as if the right to infect others (or be infected) was at the forefront of the minds of the Founding Fathers. This is another ideologically motivated attack on science which has backfired on the proponents because its stupidity is self-evident.
Anti-Semitism has also got mixed up with claims that the 5G network is responsible for the virus. This claim resulted in people attacking 5G towers in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the mistaken belief this would stop them from being infected – never mind that it started in a place where 5G didn’t exist. Early on in the pandemic I was sent an email suggesting that “G5 [sic] was invented in Israel, then exported to other countries whilst banned in Israel”.
How to refute conspiracy theories
In the absence of a known medical cause, people invent causes for illnesses that are “a sign of the times and not a reason for the disease”, wrote New York intellectual Susan Sontag way back in 1978 in her book Illness as Metaphor. This analysed how victims of illnesses like tuberculosis and cancer were blamed for catching the disease before science caught up with an explanation.
When HIV came along, early victims were likewise blamed for a lifestyle that moralists and ideologues disapproved of.
What we’re finding now is that fake theories and conspiracy theories are similarly pushed around by people seeking to further their own agendas, whether it’s anti-American, pro-American, anti-WHO, anti-left-wing, anti-Semitic, anti-Chinese or pro-Chinese.
The recently published book Conspiracy Theories by Quassim Cassam identifies two sorts of people who push these kinds of fake rumours: those who invented the theories, like David Icke and Donald Trump, and their hard-core supporters; and lesser followers, or the more innocent – maybe they are just seeking to understand what’s going on and gain “likes” for forwarding.
Cassam’s lucidly argued book takes apart what all conspiracy theories do, and offers advice for counteracting them – which he says is absolutely necessary in order to fight fake news and educate the public.
It’s very hard to argue with the hard-core supporters because any attempt to do so usually only reinforces their belief that you are yourself a victim of brainwashing by the establishment. However, it does help, Cassam says, to point out the occasions when you yourself have criticised the establishment to prove that you are not an establishment stooge.
For everybody else, which is the majority of people who forward these messages, Cassam advocates pointing out to them the company they keep by doing so – they may not really wish to be associated with loonies or anti-Semitic/anti-liberal democracy extremists.
He says that “by endorsing conspiracy theories, one can’t help associating with the causes that these theories have traditionally promoted”.
Cassam also advises to use evidence and proper arguments to refute the theories, and try to educate people in how to check information on the Internet, as they may not know how to be discerning about their sources.
The truth about the origins of COVID-19
In the last few weeks, many of us have encountered what our comfortable lifestyle had kept from view: our supply chains and economies are built on shaky foundations.
Even the most powerful economies have proved to be inadequately prepared. And we’ve hardly begun to see the effect on the poor countries, with no healthcare infrastructure, no welfare safety net, and no possibility of social distancing.
A recent Financial Times article stated: “COVID-19 began as a disease of the rich but will devastate the poor far more.”
It spread fast because the rich fly everywhere.
It most probably began, although this has yet to be finally determined, with a virus that leapt from a trafficked animal, the extremely endangered, beautiful and harmless pangolin, whose illegal trade to China conservation groups have long campaigned against.
Scientists have been warning about this type of virus transmission and this type of pandemic for many years – just watch the 2011 film Contagion, which was based on such warnings, for a prescient glimpse of what has just happened.
The trade in animals is just one part of humanity’s war on nature. As the IPBES’ Global Assessment Report says (the organisation is to biodiversity what the IPCC is to climate change): we have in the last 50 years lost 60 per cent of nature.
Last week we celebrated Earth Day’s 50th birthday. Over the same time period, humanity’s overall ecological footprint has increased from one planet to 1.7 times what Earth can renew. We’ve been living on borrowed time and asking for trouble.
As the Footprint Network says: “The Ecological Footprint is one of the metrics that already exist to provide the necessary tracking of human demand on nature and of the ability for natural ecosystems to meet that demand.”
“COVID-19 has made obvious that ‘we are in it together’,” they say. “This is straight biology. This means that justice, prosperity, public health, and ecological balance are not separate issues. The neglect of our biological dependence has become the Achilles’ heel of our modern existence.”
As my colleague in Berlin, the writer Kurtis Sunday, observes, “COVID-19 attacked a global system which was already fragile in all sorts of ways … people are freaking out for all sorts of reasons and think one can go back to a pre-COVID normality. Some business interests simply want to get the tills ringing again but are also freaked out by seeing that society can get along with a much lower level of consumption/work and contrail-less skies.”
So what should we do? “We have the power to build a world that thrives within the means of our planet,” concludes the Footprint Network. This is what any nation’s recovery program needs to have at its heart. Yes, this is obviously in keeping with their agenda, but it happens to be based on science.
David Thorpe is author of ‘One Planet’ Cities: Sustaining Humanity within Planetary Limits. He also runs on line courses such as Post-Graduate Certificate in One Planet Governance. He is based in the UK.