Daud Khan is a retired UN staff based in Rome. He has degrees in economics from LSE and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar Leila Yasmine Khan is an independent writer in the Netherlands. She has Master’s in Philosophy and a Master’s in Argumentation and Rhetoric from the University of Amsterdam

Covid-19 — a conspiracy or retribution?

The popularity of the conspiracy theories probably reflects our primordial fear of the unknown

As Covid-19 spread rapidly around the globe, so did various theories about what caused the pandemic; who, if anyone, was behind it; or was it retribution for an increasingly recalcitrant human race. These theories have persisted in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. Why?

First, let’s look at the evolution of these conspiracy theories.

The initial candidate for the villain of the plot was the United States. Given various ongoing programmes of biological warfare in the US and tensions between the US and China, the extant theory during the initial weeks of the outbreak was that the CIA had developed and released the virus. Clearly the US was not winning the trade war with China, and this seemed 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 where the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, the sanctions and its more recent sabre-rattling was not getting any concrete results. Yet more confirmation was provided by reports that Israel had helped develop the virus, had a vaccine, and had even vaccinated all its citizens.

But while China managed to control Covid-19 through a set of draconian lockdowns, it spread to other countries in Asia, Europe and eventually to the US. As it did so, the theory that this was a CIA-led biological war lost ground to one that turned the blame spotlight on to the Chinese. While countries such as South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan managed to contain the virus and its economic impact, the Wuhan or “Chinese Virus”, as Mr Trump likes to call it, was ushering in the biggest recession in Europe and the US since the 1930s. This would imply much less money for defence spending which would clearly impact Western military presence around the globe. Moreover, Western soft power was being badly dented by the squabbling within the EU and the poorly managed and uncoordinated response in the US.

Meanwhile, 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%. According to this theory, the Chinese also deliberately picked Italy and Spain as targets. They were among the weakest economies in Europe and hence an outbreak there would cause maximum disruption. And if all this was not convincing enough, one only had to ask who the world’s largest importer of oil and gas is, and stands to benefit most from the collapse of petroleum prices — China!

Of course there are other candidates for the role of villain in the Covid-19 saga and among the top are Big Pharma and Big Finance. According to 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 and then sitting back and watch the money pouring in. A sub-plot in the big-pharma narrative is that the illness can easily be avoided or cured by low-cost interventions such as lemon, honey and hot water, garlic, or the Artemisia plant. However, as it is not in the interest of pharmaceutical companies they are working with doctors and medical professionals to discredit such therapies.

According to the second theory, it’s 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 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 we can be monitored at all times. Why would Bill Gates want such a thing remains unexplained.

In contrast to the conspiracy theorists, there are others who feel comfortable with a more apocalyptic view. According to them, the Covid-19 outbreak is nature’s revenge against the arrogance of humans.

The most drastic of these theories is that Gaia — Mother Earth — is taking back the planet. She is rebelling against the pollution and poisoning of soils, waters and the air; against the plundering of forests, waters and minerals; and against the millions flying around the planet or driving in their cars. According to this theory, the virus is her revenge and marks the end of the age of humans. It may take a few cycles of the virus mutating and returning, but eventually we will be extinct like dinosaurs.

Other apocalyptic theorists feel that not all is lost. The pandemic is a punishment for turning away from religion, the absence of morals and traditions, and the breakdown of family values. It is for this reason it has focused more on the godless and materialistic West where old people were sent to homes rather than kept in the family. To survive, humankind must rediscover its moral compass and return to a righteous way of life — whatever that means.

A yet more modest version is that humans have gone too far but only in some areas. So all we need to do is tweak our lifestyle to get back on track. One such theory relates to the waves emanating from the 5G telephone systems which are said to facilitate the spread of the virus while also weakening human immune systems. So, all we need to do is decommission the 5G towers. And since the telecom companies will not, activists in some countries have taken it on themselves to set them alight.

These conspiracy and apocalyptic theories persist despite clear scientific evidence that the virus has natural origins and was not humanly manufactured; despite pandemics being a part of human history and do not necessarily mean the end of the world; and despite mainstream religious leaders, from the Pope to the Grand Mufti of Al Azhar, have not said a word about Divine Will being part of the explanation.

The popularity of the conspiracy theories probably reflects our primordial fear of the unknown. Surely, if something bad is happening, someone must be responsible and can control it once its purpose has been served. In the case of the apocalyptic theories, they most likely derive from our collective guilt about continued misuse of resources and lack of attention to planetary health. This means that we will continue to get a daily dose of new theories and variants of old ones.

Is there a need for concern? Very much so. World views have a direct effect on our wellbeing and actions. Conspiracy theories or apocalyptic views create anxiety, fear and depression and cause immense harm and pain. Fear, anxiety and depression seem set to rise sharply even as the pandemic abates. In addition, there are plenty of local situations where such fears can be easily manipulated as is happening across the border in India, where Modi is blaming Muslims for deliberately spreading the virus to damage the Hindu nation. 

Published in The Express Tribune, May 12th, 2020.

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