Nepal | August 08, 2020

Conspiracy theories following Covid-19 pandemic

“Misinformation is more infectious than coronavirus”

Mohammad Sabbir Mansoor 
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The world is fighting against Covid-19 pandemic, and although we already know a lot about the novel coronavirus, many questions remain unanswered even after six months of the pandemic. Can we be re-infected by SARS-CoV-2 virus? Does the virus weaken in hot weather? Why do some people die of Covid-19 but not others? Can an asymptomatic person spread the virus? and so on. Science has given us many things that we did not expect so soon, however, there are many things that science hasn’t answered yet. While a new discovery answers one question, it opens hundreds unknown. We often overestimate the achievements of science and ignore its limitations. This raises a fundamental question: Should we still heed science which is so incomplete?

To understand the scope of science, let’s get back to what science is. Contrary to the popular belief, science is not just the collection of the finest knowledge of the world, it is also a rigorous method to find the answer to the unknown. Hence, we have an uncanny faith that only science can guide us through the pandemic with its century-long refined procedures and findings even though a lot is still unknown. The unknown does not disqualify science, it only shows its limitations. Failing to embrace the limitations of science has made us vulnerable to accept crazy ideas and fuel distrust in this remarkable achievement of humankind. The rise of conspiracy theories and growing belief on the same can be good examples.

As our mind seeks to fill the void of the unknown in a sense-making process, it adopts ideas which seem plausible with the ongoing threatening events. At the beginning of the pandemic, people believed that it was accelerated by 5G networks. While the effects of 5G on biodiversity was getting scrutiny from the general public, connecting the dangers of 5G network to the novel coronavirus seems believable. This theory got wide acceptance at that time because the pandemic had mostly affected developed countries which had been competing for the expansion of this new technology.

Believers find it easier to accept any arbitrary argument for the sake of defending conspiracy theories because most of them do not accept the rational argument which challenges their belief. When the pandemic started reaching corners where 5G hadn’t, instead of dismissing the theory that claimed 5G networks as the cause of the spread, the believers then blamed others for believing in conspiracy theory themselves, cherry-picking only the evidence that supported their argument; all new information seems to support their assumptions.

A feature of conspiracy theory that keeps it sustained is the ability to modify itself with the changing scenario and new information received to suit the narrative. When someone doesn’t like the narrative, they create a new one. Initially, some people from black communities believed that blacks are immune to the coronavirus because of their unique heritage of “ancient genes”. When the death tolls of African Americans in the US exceeded that of other people, the conspiracy believers argued that the black people who died did not possess the “pure gene from Africa” due to prolonged stay in mixed communities instead of accepting that there was no scientific evidence of coronavirus affecting different ethnicities differently. The factors that made the number worse are, however, believed to be linked to longstanding health and socio-economic disparities that have made minorities more vulnerable to Covid-19.

Every community likes to believe that somehow, they are less risk-prone than others. This notion comes from what psychologists call the ‘optimism bias’: the belief that bad things are less likely to befall on oneself than others. In a recent speech by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli in response to Member of Parliament Mr Gagan Thapa, PM Oli said that “Nepalese have a strong immunity” due to our food habits and the” Himalayan air” which received wide criticism in the country. While optimism bias may be useful for avoiding negative emotions, it can lead people to underestimate their likelihood of contracting a disease.

Why then do people fall for such misinformation? Although not every conspiracy theory is false, we may dismiss conspiracy theories for the alleged disinformation they spread. They exist, however, because they serve to help cope with the existential threat and death-related anxiety. Conspiracy theories give a sense of control over something that cannot be explained. The unsettled mind fills the void with the conspiracy theories to make sense of the unthinkable. However, not all conspiracy theories should be outright neglected; a few of them have turned out to be true.

To understand who a conspiracist is, it is worth noting first that they are not someone who lacks political knowledge and, unlike popularly believed, they are not hostile on social media, but they are more vocal which makes conspiracy theories sustain more. They also tend to be anti-science and believe to have expert level knowledge despite lacking expertise in the subject.

Those who believe in one conspiracy theory tend to easily believe in others too. Belief in conspiracy theories may not be harmful or obviously destructive; for instance, believing in conspiracy theories of fake moon landing doesn’t pose any threat to individuals or the public. However, in some cases, including public health, conspiratorial beliefs can be detrimental. Someone who believes vaccines cause autism puts their life and the life of others at risk by declining to vaccinate for communicable diseases. A covert effect of a conspiratorial belief is the social and political disengagement that could be harmful to society.

A pandemic such as Covid-19 exists because we don’t know much about it, had we known enough, it would not have been a pandemic in the first place. The newness and mysteriousness of a disease is the key that unlocks the extremes of insecurity and fear to ignite unscientific claims about the disease. Hence, with the rise of conspiracy theories, the government and agencies should be ready to dismantle the misinformation with proper scientific communication techniques to ensure optimum risk perception and compliance with public policies for effective control of the pandemic.

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