I have never been interested in conspiracy theories but nowadays they are almost impossible to ignore. And not only on the internet. A neighbour recently brought up ‘the plandemic’ as we had a socially distant chat.
The notion that Covid-19 is the result of dark forces intent on world domination is increasingly commonplace. In Germany, some senior Catholic clergy have issued a letter questioning the seriousness of the public health crisis. They also criticise government actions, arguing: “the imposition of these illiberal measures is a disturbing prelude to the realization of a world government beyond all control.”
In the scenarios created by conspiracy theorists, Bill Gates is often the malevolent puppet master. He aims to vaccinate the world not just to boost his fortunes but to implant digital microchips which will afford him, and his allies, complete political control. Some even argue that Gates’ concern about overpopulation means his vaccinations will also sterilise people by stealth. Other outlandish claims are that 5G masts are transmitting the virus.
However, it’s the more moderate, but nonetheless conspiratorial, claims that most surprise me. For example, on a zoom seminar recently the speaker, a professional man in his 60s, claimed that in the UK, as elsewhere, the motivation behind lockdown is not public health but the government’s desire to “track the population all the time”. This claim did not appear to ruffle the 70 participants, most of whom had some scientific training and two university degrees.
But the notion that the lockdown is only about politicians’ desire for surveillance is illogical. One of the most obvious limitations of democratic politics is that politicians think short-term. They simply won’t tackle difficult issues such as climate change or improving eldercare as they are not prepared to do anything which may damage their chances of winning the next election. So how likely is it that politicians would effectively shut down the economy and radically restrict people’s freedom for some future prospect of enhanced surveillance?
Even if lockdown is ultimately shown to be a counterproductive strategy, as the virus simply keeps reappearing, it’s easy to see why leaders of western countries, including the reluctant President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson, felt they had no choice. If these measures had not been taken, and Covid-19 cases were allowed to spread exponentially, there would have been a catastrophic spike in illness and deaths. Few governing politicians would risk being in charge as their country’s health service ceases to function, the number of corpses outstrips the capacity to process them and excessive numbers of key workers are on sick leave. And, given that the government did not take the appropriate action early enough to get a grip of the pandemic, this is exactly what would have happened in the UK without lockdown.
The conspiratorial mind will, however, argue that the government dragged its feet so it could then bring in draconian measures. And this is the problem with conspiracy theorists – they can never admit that some things happen as a result of incompetence or straight forward coincidence. Everyone in power has evil intent. Everything that happens is the result of some nefarious plan to control, rip off or hoodwink the public.
Many conspiracy theorists view all government action as potentially malign. In a recent broadcast on the website UK Column, which regularly promotes conspiracies, they claimed there is talk in government about “joining care homes to the NHS”. Given the unaffordable cost of care for many and the lack of integration between health and social care, these discussions could be seen in a positive light. But no, according to UK Column, “the direction of travel is communism”. And if you think that the military is currently helping out in this pandemic by simply delivering supplies or running test centres, think again. What we are witnessing is no less than “the conflation of military and civilian” roles thereby “making it easier for martial law”. These presenters even claim that the British government is “happy that business and the economy is being destroyed” by their current lockdown measures.
On websites like this there is no room for nuance, context or benefit of the doubt. Everything is interpreted in the most negative light and conclusions drawn even when they are farcical. Does anyone really believe that arch free marketeer Boris Johnson is delighted at what is happening to the economy; that he desires more state control and a move to communism?
I am no naïve Pollyanna. I value scepticism and I know that politicians may take advantage of what’s happening and try to accrue more power. Privacy campaigners are right to press the government on its new tracking app. I also know that conspiracies do exist. But lockdown isn’t one of them.
Why action on Covid-19 is necessary
One of the reasons why this pandemic has encouraged conspiracy theories is that many who contract Covid-19 are asymptomatic or hardly suffer at all. What’s more, the death rate is not excessive when compared to other viruses like SARS or swine flu. This has allowed some to argue that Covid-19 is not much worse than seasonal flu and that destructive lockdown measures don’t make sense.
But this minimises the fact that this is a nasty virus. Those who are hospitalised are in ICU for weeks. One in three die. A recent Scottish study of Italian, Scottish and Welsh victims, reported in The Economist, found “fully 20% of the dead were reasonably healthy people in their 50s and 60s, who were expected to live for another 25 years on average.” The Economist concludes from the study that most of the victims were far from being “at death’s door” prior to the illness and asserts: “Allowing the virus to spread freely would sacrifice the strong as well as the weak.”
But death is not the only measure of this virus’s dramatic effect. Doctors are now aware of how damaging Covid-19 can be for those who survive as they can have potentially permanent damage to their hearts, lungs or kidneys. Doctors are seeing patients, even those not ill enough to be hospitalised, now suffering from neurological conditions or chronic fatigue. Professor Nicholas Hart, the respiratory consultant who treated Boris Johnson, tweeted: “Covid-19 is this generation’s polio. … Large numbers of patients will have physical, cognitive and psychological disability post critical illness that will require long term management.” In short, on top of the Covid-19 deaths, there may well be a tsunami of disability.
This is also a cruel disease that separates the critically ill from their families and loved ones. Everything that humans desire at the end of their lives is made nigh impossible by the virus. The bereaved are subsequently isolated and cannot get the support they need to manage their loss. No wonder 75 per cent of people in the UK, young and old alike, ‘strongly supported’ the lockdown measures.
Conspiracy thinking and its effects
As I was writing this article, the journal, Psychological Medicine, published empirical research into conspiracy beliefs and coronavirus in England which confirms my own observations that there are many conspiracy theorists in our midst. The authors write that their results “are illuminating but dispiriting: a substantial minority of the population endorses unequivocally false ideas about the pandemic.” They are also right to point out that these conspiracy beliefs are both “indexes and drivers of societal corrosion.”
Respondents varied in the conspiracy theories they endorsed but what’s clear is that many simply didn’t believe institutions, politicians, officials and experts. And it’s worrying that those who most uphold conspiracy beliefs are less likely to adhere to government recommendations on social distancing, for example. In short, these beliefs have real consequences.
Reading conspiracy theories has had a negative effect on my mood. The belief that no one can be trusted erodes hope and the sense that our actions can make a difference. Suspicion ultimately corrodes the human spirit and breeds cynicism.
Conspiracy theorists believe that political leaders spend their time plotting, planning and pulling strings. Journalistic accounts of the crisis in the UK, like BBC Scotland’s Disclosure or The Sunday Times Insights exposé, suggest that, far from conspiring to pull anything off, politicians miscalculated, dithered and bumbled. The lateness of the UK lockdown has cost tens of thousands of lives. What we’ve witnessed is not conspiracy but cock-up.
But that won’t stop conspiracy theories which feed on mistrust. Only complete government transparency can reduce them. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister’s backing for his chief advisor Dominic Cummings this week, despite his breach of lockdown and self-isolation rules, has further diminished many ordinary people’s trust in government. This episode has confirmed the common view that the elite have their own rules and are not to be trusted – fertile territory for conspiracy theorists.
This isn’t simply bad for democracy: it threatens the very notion of objective truth. Sadly, if conspiracy thinking continues to spread like unchecked coronavirus, its corrosive effects will undermine us all.
Featured image: Dido Harding, executive chair of NHS test and trace, by Pippa Fowles, via flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; Dominic Cummings, via PA images/openDemocracy; Conspiracy theories by Christopher Dombres, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0
Further reading: The prophecies of Q(anon), The Atlantic, May 13; Are conspiracy theories undermining fight against coronavirus?, Essex University, April 29; Should I worry about…, CGTN, May 28 and many others….