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Covid-19 and conspiracy theories

Termed by the UN Chief as “infodemic”, conspiracies around Covid-19 have drawn many conjectures. Through misinformation, disinformation and ‘fake’ information many rumors and conspiracy theories were rampant before the onset of virus and are still circulating after introduction of the vaccine.

Conspiracy theories have been prevalent since olden times but are getting sophisticated under the garb of disinformation, contrived information and quasi-scientism. What is commonly known in international relations as the ‘devil image’ theory thrives. Often governments try to hide true information from their public by peddling conspiracies. This is practiced in varying degrees in all countries for maintaining one-upmanship, shifting blame on others, employing diversionary tactics and avoiding accountability or responsibility.

In undemocratic societies, where press and political system are controlled, conspiracies tend to proliferate. It is human nature to fall for bad and startling news and media can be misused easily. Electronic media and globalization enable conspiracy theories to provide quick, simplistic and convenient answers. Certain powerful groups manufacture conspiracies for survival and vested interests. Social media is a strong medium and one of its negative sides is giving slew of information by disinformation and purveying of different conspiracies. The print media is also vulnerable but is generally more discreet.

In countries with illiteracy, poverty and poor education the public do not have much time to read and think; hence they easily fall prey to alarmist, misleading and counter-factual information. Conspiratorial thinking provides instant, convenient and ready answers to many existential problems. Powerful lobbies like business companies, religious groups, opposition leaders and other corporate interests are involved in posing challenge to many countries – more so in quasi and nascent democracies.

The Covid-19 epidemic and commentaries on are vivid example of peddling conspiracy theories for ulterior motives. The fabricated information is repeated incessantly under quasi-technical jargon; this is another failing of liberal democracies where poor governance, paucity of education, ineffective media management and lack of governmental co-ordination are major problems.

However, where governments act promptly and implement decisions strictly things have turned out to be better. Besides China, prime examples are New Zealand, some Scandinavian countries and, to some extent, Pakistan in South Asia.

China has always drawn criticism with conspiracy theories — mostly by the US. The accusations leveled against China in WHO–China Joint mission on Carnivorus (Feb 2020) were disproved. The 25-nation international panel comprising Nigeria, China, Germany, Japan Korea, Russia, Singapore, US and the WHO did not allege any conspiracy; on the other hand, the DG WHO appreciated Chinese cooperation and accorded respect and gratitude.

On the contrary, these statements of appreciation raised some conspiratorial voices, especially in the US. For the then Trump administration, shifting of responsibility and employing conspiracy theories had become a standard norm. His policies of sealing southern borders, tirade against Muslims and minorities, dismissing phenomenon of climate change and Covid-19, and consequent damage to the US economy, exit from the WHO – cumulatively worked against his government, causing his electoral defeat.

Pakistan, as an over-populated and nascent democracy, has been fortunate by relatively performing well with quick responses, careful planning and better oversight – though dangers remain.

That China was successful in containing the virus was attributable to strong government and leadership in quick implementation of necessary measures, i.e., mass testing, scanning and quarantining. In fact, the Chinese template was meant for many countries and but in the face of rising world fatalities conspiracies started mushrooming and so did the ‘China-blaming’.

Trump’s cynical dismissal of the virus and naming it “China virus” has now being grudgingly realized that mere scapegoating does not work. Likewise, Britain, Italy, France, Spain and some other European nations had to suffer with lost lives and damaged economies by underestimating the gravity of the virus.

Dealing with conspiracy theories is going to be a challenge for many developing countries. First, where governments are divided and demonstrate no clear direction conspiracies of all kinds tend to thrive. Now, many nations are competing in manufacturing the vaccine and some may use their scientific prowess to monopolize the sale of the vaccine for profit and maintain scientific lead.

Secondly, there is a need to act promptly and rely on experts’ opinion and not half-baked economists, opportunistic politicians and non-experts.

Thirdly, social media can act like a wild horse – if not properly reined. Many developing countries need revamping of media reforms with proper checks and balances but without curtailing media freedom.

Fourthly, the WHO and the UN and related government bodies must act in concert and prioritize the neglected health and education sectors — promoting healthy change in national economies.

Finally and not the least, health, education and disaster relief have to be allocated more funds for meeting future contingencies.

In summation, climate effects and diseases are closely interlinked and may pose future global threats. This could give licence to rumours and generation of conspiracies. News about likely mutation of the epidemic and climate’s erratic swings may lead to recriminations and generation of conspiracies to perplex the common public.

Professor Dr Maqsudul Hasan Nuri, "Covid-19 and conspiracy theories," Business Recorder. 2021-02-25.
Keywords: Social sciences , European nations , Chinese template , Trump administration , Nigeria , China , Germany , Japan Korea , Russia , Singapore , WHO , UN

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