Hard and soft conspiracies

Perhaps the biggest peddler of this soft conspiracy theory is our political elite

Muhammad Hamid Zaman March 09, 2021
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

Some conspiracy theories are easy to spot. Like the fact that someone may believe the moon landing on July 20, 1969 was all staged and filmed in a desert in Nevada. Or that someone may believe that the coronavirus is an international conspiracy against Muslims, or that the Covid vaccine will insert a chip into our bodies and cause infertility. All these are what I call “hard conspiracies” — with the believers clearly affirming their faith in them. These theories are also easy to dismiss and rebut because of the clear position the believers in the theories take.

The more difficult ones to deal with are soft conspiracy theories. Here the believers do not clearly admit their position, or do not outright deny the existence of a scientific fact. A soft conspiracy theory would be something like a belief that somehow Pakistanis are immune from Covid-19. Or people believing that while Covid is real, there is no real reason to wear masks. Or believing that somehow, we are extra special, if we wear a mask some of the time, or just keep it around, it will be good enough. These are not hard conspiracy theories as per se, but a belief about ourselves (and the virus) that is both utter nonsense and dangerous to not just our society but the whole world. While we continue to pay the price in myriad ways (e.g. the uptick in cases once again, or the latest PSL embarrassment last week), because the belief is soft, it is harder to argue against. Just because the belief is soft, however, does not mean the consequences are any less serious.

Perhaps the biggest peddler of this soft conspiracy theory is our political elite. If there was any doubt that they are disconnected from the concerns of the people, their recent behaviour should convince the naysayers. The parliamentarians refused to wear a mask last week during the chaotic Senate elections. There was no enforcement of SOPs by the very government officials that designed them. The Minister of Health can say one thing, but his colleagues choose to do what they have always done — nothing! People were meeting each other as if it was Eid (or mourning depending upon your political viewpoint) and sitting next to each other for extended periods without a mask. It was easy to spot in any picture frame the lone person wearing a mask. Among the cabinet members, the only person was the former finance minister. Even the minister of science did not wear one. We do not know how many of the ministers or parliamentarians have secretly gotten the vaccine, but we do know that even if they did, or have had the disease, there is no reason not to wear the mask. There is no logical explanation for this behaviour except a firm belief in the soft conspiracy that we are unique, special, and above the weaklings of the world who are suffering from Covid.

A similar situation has played out in the school-opening debate. While the discussion about opening primary and secondary schools is happening the world over (with arguments on both sides), there is absolutely no good reason to open the institutions of higher education with no regard for hybrid education, limited class size or online learning. Economic arguments should be used with honesty and not as a euphemism for our soft conspiracy theories — or this naïve belief that “we will be fine”.

In indoor meetings by the ruling party or outdoor press conferences by the opposition, the general refusal to wear a mask is not only a mockery of public health, but a general admission of our own idiocy. Unfortunately, in a battle between science and conspiracy theories, we already know who is going to win.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 9th, 2021.

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