Guest Column

OPINION | The Covid-19 'infodemic' and why conspiracy theories are extremely dangerous

2020-04-23 15:32
Fake news and conspiracy theories around Covid-19 abound. (Getty Images, Gallo Images)

Fake news and conspiracy theories around Covid-19 abound. (Getty Images, Gallo Images)

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It is up to the medical profession and medical scientists to make sure we regularly communicate with the public to provide a better sense of certainty and control, writes Faadiel Essop.


I am writing this article in defence of Modern Medicine and the Medical Sciences, after another conspiratorial video that landed in my WhatsApp inbox literally pushed me "over the edge".

This time an "exclusive" video (with more than a million views) by a so-called expert, Dr Rashid Buttar, passionately spins the SARS-CoV-2 bio-weapon yarn.

Here Buttar makes (unproven) claims that the virus was engineered in a US laboratory and that prominent individuals such as Bill Gates and Dr Anthony Fauci form an integral part of this devious scheme.

Buttar also makes the audacious allegation that medical doctors at the frontline are also implicated as they are required to "doctor" (excuse the pun) death certificates to falsely record SARS-CoV-2 as the cause of death!

Such theories are often contradictory in nature, for e.g. was the virus bioengineered in the US or China? This seems to depend on your particular worldview and/or political ideology.

Other outlandish claims include that a cure is already available but currently being withheld for later profits and/or that 5G cell towers are causing the current pandemic.

Does it matter in the end whether such claims are taken seriously or not? It does indeed, as there can be serious repercussions if left unchecked.

Tedors Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), aptly summed up the challenge when he recently stated: "We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic".

He was referring to the rapid spread of fake news, much like a destructive virus would do.

The harmful sequelae of such misinformation and false claims can be detrimental as witnessed by the damage to 5G cellphone towers in the UK, or when train driver Eduordo Morena attempted to crash into the US Naval Hospital Ship Mercy in Los Angeles.

Morena later acknowledged that he was guilty but believed the Mercy had a different (sinister) purpose related to Covid-19 of which the public was unaware of.

In addition to such physical acts of destruction, the infodemic is also eroding trust in traditional medical institutions, scientists and healthcare workers.

This is equally dangerous as such an erosion can lead to sectors of the public questioning guidelines provided by medical experts and authorities such as the WHO and others.

This can easily lead to an "us" versus "them" scenario.

For example, US protesters recently disregarded lockdowns and social distancing stipulations while calling for the "liberation of Michigan, Virginia and Minnesota" in order to resume economic activities in the US.

This is an ongoing protest movement in the US.

The question we have to ask ourselves is: why are some sectors of the public so prone to such rash claims and conspiracies despite the abundance of hard evidence?

Alarmingly, data generated by the Pew Research Center shows that almost a third of Americans actually believe that the virus was created in a laboratory.

Why would someone believe a video by a so-called "expert" (with questionable credentials) that the SARS-CoV-2 is a bioweapon when there is conclusive proof to the contrary?

For example, the authors of a recent, comprehensive study published in the highly regarded Nature Medicine journal concluded that the genetic data "irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone".

The authors instead propose two scenarios for its origin, i.e. natural selection in an animal host before transfer to humans, or natural selection in humans following the viral transfer from animals.

In support, a group of 27 expert public health scientists recently released a statement in the prestigious Lancet journal where they state that "we stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin".

Despite clear evidence that Iran has no 5G cell phone towers and a significant burden of disease for Covid-19 in terms of morbidity and mortality, the conspiracy endures.

Or the fact that a vaccine will only be ready for testing in 18 months does not deter the spread of information that secret pharmacologic cures are available but being withheld!

An excellent explanation for conspiracy-type behaviour was recently put forward by John Cook from George Mason University and Stephan Lewandowsky from the University of Bristol.

In their new Conspiracy Theory Handbook, the authors propose that when there is a lack of certainty and/or the lack of clear answers to a major problem this creates fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theories to flourish as they provide a sense of control.

They state that "it seems almost counter-intuitive because why would imagining that this is secret conspirators in a lab generating a virus, why does that make people feel more in control? Because at least that’s an explanation. And if the explanation is just random things happen in nature; people don’t like randomness. We prefer to have causal explanations".

This search for causality is precisely the gap filled by those who peddle damaging conspiracies and this is constructed by removing contexts surrounding events and people, and by simplistically linking related events.

By the way, some say Nostradamus also predicted the pandemic, as did former US presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Does it mean they’re all involved in conspiracy of mega proportions?

Of note, the plethora of conspiracy theories currently spreading like wildfire is not unique to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.

A similar scenario played out initially with the HIV/Aids denialism, leading to delayed treatment in South Africa (1990s and early 2000s) and a significant number of unnecessary and preventable deaths.

Likewise, the Germans were blamed for unleashing a new weapon of war that caused the Spanish flu (1918-1920) with claims made that they conspired to complete this mission by entering Boston harbour with a camouflaged ship.

Thus, it is up to the medical profession and medical scientists to make sure we regularly communicate with the public to provide a better sense of certainty and control.

By regularly and clearly stating the facts, and by taking time to debunk related myths, such an approach should help to "inoculate" against the Covid-19 infodemic and thereby lead to informed decision-making and less clogged-up WhatsApp inboxes.

- Professor Faadiel Essop is Director of the Centre for Cardio-metabolic Research in Africa (CARMA) at Stellenbosch University.

Read more on:    coronavirus  |  fake news  |  pandemic
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