By Daud Khan and Leila Yasmine Khan
AMSTERDAM/ROME, Jun 1 2020 (IPS)
As the COVID-19 virus spread rapidly around the globe, so did various theories about what caused the pandemic. According to the standard scientific theory, the virus probably originated in bats and then crossed over to humans, probably via another intermediate host. It then spread rapidly across the globe, piggybacking on the international travel network.
While the mainstream scientific theory sufficed for some, a large number of people saw the pandemic as the work of cold-hearted military or industrial strategists. An equally large number of people saw it as some kind of divine or natural retribution for an increasingly recalcrinant human race. It’s interesting to look at these various alternative theories. It is even more interesting to speculate why they have such a strong hold among the public.
In the first of this two part article, we will look at conspiracy theories; in the second part, at the apocalyptic theories.
Why are conspiracy theories so popular? Why do they persist despite statements by the scientific community that the virus has natural origins and was not humanly manufactured? Why do the President and the Secretary of State of the most powerful nation on earth, with the best universities and research capabilities, continue to maintain that the whole thing was a Chinese plot with connivance of the World Health Organization?
At the start of the pandemic, the most popular candidate for the villain was the USA. According to this set of conspiracy theories – I use the word “set” deliberately, as there were many variants – the CIA had developed and released the virus. It was an easy and low cost way to limit China’s growing economic and political clout. The theory gained support as the next hotspot was Iran – another problematic country for the USA.
However, as the COVID-19 virus spread to other countries, the blame spotlight turned on the Chinese. It was the Chinese who had developed and released the virus to bring the USA and Europe to its knees, and usher in the biggest recession of the century. One objective was to impact western economic and military presence around the globe.
Another was to undermine the soft power of these countries as their democratic systems of governance and their traditions of open debate would inevitably lead to squabbling between and within countries – something that would show the limitations of western democracy in today’s globalized world. At the same time, the fall in stock prices around the world allowed Chinese investors to buy massive quantities of shares in US and European markets with discounts of 30% to 50%. And if all this was not convincing enough, one only had to ask: who is the world’s largest importer of oil and gas? Who stands to benefit most from the collapse of petroleum prices? China!
Of course, there are other candidates for the role of the villain in the COVID saga, including Big Pharma and Big Finance. According to first of these, the big pharmaceutical companies not only developed the virus but already have a vaccine ready.
They are only waiting for sales of standard medicines and medical supplies to peak before announcing the vaccine. They would then sit back and watch the money pouring in. A sub-plot in the big-pharma narrative is that the illness can easily be avoided, or even cured, by low cost interventions such as lemon juice, honey, garlic, hot water or the Artemisia plant. However, these low cost cures are not in the interest of the pharmaceutical companies. Big Pharma is therefore working with the medical profession to discredit such low cost therapies.
According to the second theory, it the big pension funds and insurance companies whose projected earnings and valuations have been badly eroded by the progressive increase in life expectancy. By targeting the old and chronically ill, COVID-19 has been a silver bullet for them. So surely they must be behind it.
Most recently the conspiracy theorists have also found a new villain. Bill Gates, who in a video several years ago – at the time of the Ebola crisis – talked about the risks of a global pandemic. Apparently, his goal is to place a computer chip inside each of us so that we can be monitored at all times. Why in the world Bill Gates would want to do such a thing remains unexplained.
But why are conspiracy theories so popular? Why do they persist despite statements by the scientific community that the virus has natural origins and was not humanly manufactured? Why do the President and the Secretary of State of the most powerful nation on earth, with the best universities and research capabilities, continue to maintain that the whole thing was a Chinese plot with connivance of the World Health Organization?
There is certainly a personality type that would choose a good conspiracy theory over other explanations any day. It is a way of demonstrating that they know more than others and that they can see through the smoke screens and disinformation fed to the general public. It is a way of asserting inserting intellectual superiority.
But in the case of COVID-19, there is also a huge amount of collective anxiety that feeds on a primordial fear of the unknown, of death and of economic deprivation. This anxiety is like a virus that lives in our minds and is spread through millions of messages on Facebook and WhatsApp, by dramatic images on TV, and by graphs and statistics in the print media.
Although this fear is universal, it has a particularly strong hold in Europe and the USA where consistent improvements over the last 50 years in living standards, health care and life expectancy has created a feeling of invincibility which COVID-19 has badly shaken.
This collective anxiety is much placated through having a clear target on whom to pin blame. The assumption is that by unmasking the villains and by punishing them, the problem will likely go away. Clearly this is what is happening in the USA and why so many believe whatever untruths the President and his team is feeding them. There is also a huge risk that populist political parties in Europe, as well as Asia, Africa and Latin America will also find it expedient to take the same tack: give us a chance and we will take strong and determined action that will solve the problem. This is a time to beware!
Daud Khan is a former United Nations official who lives between Italy and Pakistan. He holds degrees in Economics from the London School of Economics and Oxford University where he was a Rhodes Scholar; and a degree in Environmental Management from the Imperial College of Science and Technology.
Leila Yasmine Khan is an independent writer and editor based in the Netherlands. She has Master’s degrees in Philosophy and in Argumentation Theory and Rhetoric from the University of Amsterdam, as well as a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy from the University of Rome (Roma Tre).