As more governments declare a state of emergency and businesses close to limit the spread of COVID-19, the world has shifted into a state of crisis.
Social distancing has increasingly become the new norm, but conspiracy theories are also on the rise as people search for an explanation.
Experiencing a pandemic for the first time has made people more nervous than usual. People like to feel in control of their lives, however, that sense of security is eroded when our daily lives are interrupted and stopping the spread of COVID-19 seems impossible.
Take the people around the world panic buying food and toilet paper. Although this gives people some control over their immediate well-being, it can cause real supply shortages as a collective action.
Another way people try to regain their personal agency is by searching for an easy explanation and someone to blame. Conspiracy theories can help their believers reassert control over an unstable and complex situation, such as a pandemic, by offering a simple answer.
Some have already claimed the coronavirus came from space — which is not true — but this just shows the lengths people are willing to go to find an explanation.
In reality, the SARS-CoV-2 virus has a pretty uneventful origin compared to the conspiracy theories already surrounding it. Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning the virus was transmitted from an animal species to humans. This is what is suspected to have happened in a seafood market in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
But this seemingly random zoonotic beginning hardly competes with the idea that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is actually a biological weapon manufactured in a lab. Suspicion is misdirected at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, with rumours claiming the virus was either intentionally or accidentally released.
Believing that the novel coronavirus is the product of human engineering is tantalizing because it makes the emerging pathogen seem less like a chaotic force of nature while providing a scapegoat.
Despite how believable these explanations might be, research has debunked the theory. Furthermore, past coronaviruses such as MERS and SARS both had zoonotic origins. And there are several identified coronaviruses in animals that have not yet infected humans.
However, some Chinese officials have flipped this conspiracy theory around to deflect blame for the pandemic with a counterclaim that the virus is a bioweapon inflicted against them. Chinese propaganda is now pushing a conspiracy that the United States’ military released the coronavirus in Wuhan.
In response to these state-sponsored rumours, President Donald Trump has deliberately been calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.” Trump claims this term is not racist and strictly refers to its country of origin, but many fear the term is stoking xenophobia during a global crisis.
While conspiracy theories can help individuals rationalize the randomness of the world during this pandemic, they are increasingly being used as political tools to misdirect citizens’ anxieties.
A statement made by public health scientists from around the world has condemned rumours and misinformation, suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.
“Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours and prejudice that jeopardize our global collaboration in the fight against the virus,” the statement said.
The fact that so many conspiracies have quickly arisen shows that our society is plagued by worse things than emerging viruses — misinformation.
However, stopping the coronavirus is not out of our control. In fact, it is very dependent on each individual to be responsible and practice social distancing to help flatten the curve.
Noah Callaghan | Staff Writer
Photo: Flickr / Indrid__Cold