Corona and 5G conspiracy theories

The coronavirus has given a boost to the need of having a much faster, efficient and ubiquitous mobile broadband


Parvez Iftikhar May 04, 2020
PHOTO: AFP

ISLAMABAD: In the early 1930s, car radios were new, and some states of the US started to fine people who installed them in their cars.

Car radios were considered to cause accidents. Finally in 1939, a study, “The Princeton Radio Research Project”, determined otherwise. This is only one of the countless examples that remind us that somehow we have always lived with opposition to new things, especially technology.

Keeping the tradition alive, ever since the fifth generation (5G) mobile technology has started to become a reality, a plethora of conspiracy theories have started to emerge. While a vast majority of the world has been dismissing such rumours, the Covid-19 gave them a fresh boost.

Among the first ones, Dr Thomas Cowan, a US doctor on disciplinary probation, claimed in a YouTube video that 5G poisoned cells in the human body forcing them to excrete waste, which caused Covid-19.

The theory was based on a number of false claims, like the Spanish Flu (1918) coincided with the launch of commercial radio services (although radio broadcasts started later in 1920), and Wuhan was the first city to have 5G (it was not).

Then the case in The Hague of 300 starlings found dead in October 2018 and in Beebe Arkansas of 500 dead blackbirds found in January 2020, were blamed on 5G. But in both cases there was no 5G being deployed, or even being tested, there.

Mass deaths of birds are not uncommon and European governments actually monitor those for disease outbreaks.

Another video showing the “Chinese destroying 5G poles as they are aware that it is the thing triggering the corona syndrome”, turned out to be of Hong Kong protesters pulling down a smart street light.

Yet another set of videos claims that coronavirus is spreading only in countries where 5G is deployed, conveniently ignoring Japan, Ecuador, Malaysia and Iran, where there was no 5G but were among the first ones to get the virus.

There are multiple 5G conspiracy theories overlapping, even contradicting, each other – either that the virus is the real cause of Covid-19 and 5G is making it worse; or that the virus is not the cause of the disease and all the symptoms are related to 5G; or that the outbreak is only a hoax to enable governments to install 5G “under the cover of lockdown”.

Are radio waves harmful?

Claims of radio waves causing harm have long been there. We have lived with these for over 70 years, often at higher power levels.

Some of the same radio frequencies now used for 4G/5G have been used by broadcast TV and mobile telephony for years. For example, the 800 MHz frequency band (currently used for 4G) was previously used for analog TV.

As the US Environmental Protection Agency explains, there are two kinds of electromagnetic radiation: ionising and non-ionising.

Ionising radiation can be damaging to body’s cells and even cause cancer (eg over-exposure to X-rays).

But the radio signals are non-ionising – including those very high 5G “millimetre-wavelength” frequencies. They can make the atoms heat up, but not cause harm – unless their levels are extremely high.

For example, microwave ovens and WiFi use the same set of frequencies (2.4 GHz) but microwave ovens cook food (heat) by using lots of power (800 watts+) whereas WiFi uses only a minuscule fraction of a single watt to send signals over the entire house.

Yet another factor not to be under-estimated is the protective characteristics of human skin. Millimetre waves (as in 5G) are absorbed within a few millimetres of human skin. Higher the frequencies, more difficult it is for the waves to penetrate.

In short, mobile signals are extremely low power, their sources (towers) are typically hundreds of meters away, and on top we have skin protection.

Naysayers often misunderstand the existing research on the importance of different frequency bands, power levels, distance and the role of skin, and often combine it with bad science.

International studies

The anti-5G voices actually belong to pre-Covid-19 days. Back in 2015, a “5G Appeal” was presented to the United Nations (later in 2017 also to the European Union) by a group of medical doctors and scientists (268 as of December 18, 2019), stating that with 5G nobody would be able to avoid exposure to EMF radiation. Therefore, it said, a moratorium should be placed on 5G deployment until potential hazards for human health and environment have been fully investigated.

But the World Health Organisation (WHO) has consistently maintained that there is no proven risk from mobile telephony, even when WHO classifies all electromagnetic radiation as “possibly carcinogenic”, ie the potential exists to cause harm. What makes mobile telecommunications safe is the extremely low power behind the signals.

More recently, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has declared, “There is no scientific basis whatsoever for any relation between the diffusion of coronavirus and 4G or 5G or electromagnetic waves in general.”

The watchdog “International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection” (ICNIRP), an official non-governmental organisation to protect people and environment from adverse effects of non-ionising radiation, issues guidelines that cover high frequencies up to 300 GHz (5G will only be tens of GHz). ICNIRP rebuts claims of 5G being harmful.

UK’s telecom regulator Ofcom tested electromagnetic field (EMF) emissions at 22 5G sites in February and March 2020 in 10 cities. The highest EMF level (including those from 3G and 4G signals) recorded at any site was approximately 1.5% of the safe levels set by ICNIRP. The highest level from 5G signals alone was just 0.039% of the ICNIRP limit. Undoubtedly, more studies and investigations are needed (and are taking place) to fully allay fears. The challenge is to find experts who possess complementary backgrounds in both physics or engineering and medicine.

Future of 5G

The coronavirus has, if anything, given a boost to the need of having a much faster, efficient and ubiquitous mobile broadband, such as 5G.

In more forward-looking countries, 5G deployment is surging ahead. In the last three months alone, three 5G mmWave spectrum auctions (in the US, Thailand and Taiwan) have gone ahead.

Similarly, in the sub-6 GHz bands of 5G, awards of 700 MHz and 3.5 GHz bands across six countries (China, Denmark, Hungary, Iceland, Taiwan and Thailand) have taken place.

Unfortunately, in countries like Pakistan, the launch of 5G in 2020-21 was not deemed feasible even before Covid-19 (barring some trials). But if there were any such chances, the crisis made them disappear totally.

It would be a great achievement if Pakistan’s government and regulator are able to support 4G in the country, which desperately needs some help, like facilitating right of way for optic fibres in the backhaul, allocating more spectrum, giving some relief in taxes, etc.

If all this could be managed, it will not only help the nation in its fight against the virus, it will soon lead to a tipping point to 5G.

In the meantime, so far all the conspiracy theories hyped by those claims and videos have been falling flat on their faces.

One of the earlier videos gave the example of South Africa as a place with most coronavirus cases on the African continent because it is a “country with most 5G deployed”. However, recent (May 1) figures show that Pakistan (with no 5G anywhere yet) has over three times more confirmed cases (17,699 vs 5,647) and deaths (408 vs 103) than South Africa.

The writer is former CEO of the Universal Service Fund and is providing ICT consultancy services in several countries of Africa and Asia

Published in The Express Tribune, May 4th, 2020.

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