Since the outbreak of COVID-19, people around the world have been trying to understand where it came from.
In an effort to explain the medical mystery, many have turned to conspiracy theories, and not for the first time in history.
Joseph Uscinski, professor of political science at the University of Miami, tells that, particularly in the US, there’s long been a “feeling that there are secret cures out there that are being hidden by either the government or by pharmaceutical companies”.
But health and disease-related conspiracy theories pre-date modern governments and companies.
In fact, they date all the way back to ancient times.
‘I’m about to tell you a terrible story’
The first record of a health-related conspiracy theory is from ancient Rome, in 331 BC, when an unknown plague was killing citizens.
It had been accepted that citizens dying with similar symptoms were as a result of the plague “until a slave woman came forward and said that she had information about why this was occurring”, says University of Florida professor Victoria Pagan, who researches conspiracy theories in the ancient Roman world.
The woman led officials to a location, where purportedly a “ring of women that were preparing poisons” was uncovered.
A few hundred years later, historian Livy recorded the story, writing, “I’m about to tell you a terrible story. I wish it weren’t true. This is the sort of thing that I really don’t like to report'”, Dr Pagan says.
Livy’s unwillingness to share the story could be because of a lack of faith in its veracity.
“You get this very reluctant sense from the historian about this plague,” she says.
“According to our historian, there were about 170 women that were involved [in the poisonings],” Dr Pagan says.
A public trial of the women and mass arrests followed. But on the chance that there was an unexplained plague out there, Roman officials performed an ancient ritual to ward off harm as well.
It seems the Roman senators were willing to assign to the women “a level of harm that cannot be proven decisively to not be their doing”, Dr Pagan says.
After all, “conspiracy theories work because they are unfalsifiable”, she says.
Theory based on ‘roaring anti-Semitism’
In the process of striving to find answers, and to address our innate curiosity, people “can find consolation in conspiracy theories”, Dr Pagan says.
This is particularly true in the face of a challenge.
“At the root of any conspiracy theory is an absolute abhorrence of … even the remote possibility that we are at the mercy of chance or fate, and that sometimes bad things just happen,” she says.
But unfortunately, conspiracy theories can also serve another purpose, that of providing a vehicle through which to unleash racist or prejudiced beliefs.
In the 14th century, when another plague, the bubonic plague or “the Black Death”, was taking hold across the world, one explanation maintained by some in Europe for people’s ill-health was that Jews were poisoning wells.
“This was part of a roaring anti-Semitism at the time that was already alive and well in the community,” Dr Pagan says.
“The plague made it very easy to say, ‘Well, here’s a group of people that are responsible for this’. And it was very easy to do because it was already a group that was being targeted.”
She says it’s a pattern of prejudice that repeats itself throughout history “during times of fear, disease and uncertainty”.
Indeed the pattern continues with the COVID pandemic with the spike in racism directed towards Asian Australians.
‘Deliberately created’ AIDS
Conspiracy theories about bio-weapons have surfaced recently in Australia and around the world.
Dr Uscinski has conducted surveys on the topic and says around 30 per cent of Americans believe that “COVID is some form of bio-weapon that was either purposely deployed or purposely created”.
In the 1980s and 90s, there was another prominent bio-weapon conspiracy theory: that AIDS was an artificial virus created by the CIA to kill African American people.
Belief in the theory is highly racialised. A 1990 New York Times CBS poll found that 10 per cent of Black New Yorkers believed that the virus that causes AIDS was deliberately created in a laboratory in order to infect Black people. That’s compared to one per cent of white New Yorkers.
And according to a 2009 survey of young adults in Cape Town, South Africa, 16 per cent of Black respondents agreed that AIDS was invented to kill Black people and created by scientists in America.
There’s a historical mistrust in authority at the heart of the higher number of African Americans believing in HIV/AIDS-related conspiracy theories, says Faye Belgrave, professor in health psychology at the Virginia Commonwealth University.
“It’s really related to the notion of mistrust in the medical system and a history in this country where Black people have been subject to racism and discrimination because of being Black,” she says.
“So, given the history of systemic and institutional racism and medical experiments and other kinds of atrocities that have been experienced by African Americans, it’s not surprising that there would be some sense of conspiracy [that] the government wants to hurt Black people.”
5G ‘ill effects’
In 2019 Mathew Marques, a psychology lecturer at La Trobe University, surveyed 1,000 people about their level of belief in various conspiracy theories.
Respondents were asked whether they believed that the Australian government was covering up known ill effects of the new 5G technologies.
“Our research suggested that about 20 per cent agreed with that,” he says, describing that figure as “reasonably high”.
By contrast, Dr Marques says other medical conspiracy theories were less popular – but not entirely dismissed – for example, the idea that fluoride was being used in water supplies “to dim the minds of ordinary Australians and make them easier to control”.
“On the surface [it] sounds pretty bonkers.”
And yet about one in 10 people believed it.
He says often people turn to conspiracy beliefs not necessarily because they have knowledge or evidence that supports them, but “as a way to try to make sense of what’s happening in society and in their lives”.
And technological advancements can act as a lightning rod for the beliefs.
“Whether it’s 5G, or maybe 10 or so years ago 4G, or even 100 years ago AM radio, you can find historical reports where the public is wary of new technologies and potential hazards or dangers of these sorts of things,” Dr Marques says.
Socially vulnerable people more likely to take up theories
The less control you have, the more you might follow a conspiracy theory, Dr Pagan explains.
“They are always driven by a deep desire to … feel more in control of our circumstances.
“It’s much easier to find a reason for something in a group of people that are basically marginalised, whether it’s by status, class, gender, race, whatever. Anybody who’s marginalised can become a target for the explanation that we seek, that would make us feel safer than if we were simply at the mercy of chance,” she says.
Claire Hooker, senior lecturer in health and medical humanities at the University of Sydney, agrees.
She says it’s “greatly concerning” that people who have fewer social advantages, for example access to education, employment or services, tend to show a greater uptake of misinformation.
“Inequality makes their bodies more likely to be negatively hit by a disease and to have worse outcomes [and] … they have long, deeply entrenched histories of bad experiences from public health policy and from health services themselves, that will make them far less likely to have any trust in those institutions whatsoever,” Dr Hooker says.
In order to reduce misinformation and conspiracy theory circulation and appeal, she says a systematic approach is required.
“The basis of being able to successfully control and prevent pandemics is to reduce inequality in your society.”
Source: Thanks msn.com