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Pandemic of conspiracy in the era of Covid-19

In 2020 and 2021, the Covid-19 pandemic has become a centre of attraction for all sorts of conspiracy theories. There are natural reasons for this. Most active citizens do not have sufficient scientific knowledge, nor do they understand biology, chemistry, or medicine to make an independent opinion about the mechanisms of Covid-19 spread. We have had to rely on the medical experts’ opinions when it comes to issues of personal safety and restriction of rights on a scale not seen in many European countries since World War II. The human mind is drawn to making irrational decisions when it comes to matters of life and death, or serious illness. Since the Middle Ages, it can be traced that epidemics have been a breeding ground for conspiracy theories. For example, in 1348-1351, during the second plague pandemic, dubbed the Black Death, the inhabitants of European cities found the Jews to be the cause of the plague. Allegedly, the plague pandemic was the result of a Jewish plot to exterminate Christians. The Black Death took the lives of millions of people. According to various estimates, from 30 to 60 percent of the inhabitants of Europe died. A wave of anti-Semitic pogroms swept through European cities. Jews were killed and expelled from many cities in Germany, France, Spain, and Switzerland.

“Xenophobia Pandemic”

At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, news feeds were filled with stories of verbal abuse and attacks on Chinese and Asian-looking people around the world. “Chinese” individuals were accused of being the ones to blame for the spread of the virus. It was fueled by a popular conspiracy theory that the Covid-19 pandemic began as a result of a virus leak from a laboratory in Wuhan, where biological weapons were allegedly being developed. The Chinese authorities have not been transparent in their investigation into the causes of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the World Health Organization (WHO) has said that a virus leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology laboratory is “highly unlikely”. The first “anti-Chinese” wave of xenophobia was followed by other waves: at various times, people of European origin were targeted as potential vectors of Covid-19 in India or Africans in China.

Another example: conspiracy theories about the origin of the Human Immunodeficiency   Viruses (HIV). Documents from the disclosed Stasi archives shed light on the international propaganda campaign launched by the Soviet Union against the United States in the 1980s. Allegedly, the U.S. was the country of origin of the viruses causing AIDS, and the U.S. government was somehow to blame for their spread (More on this in our article dedicated to Russian propaganda). The Soviet disinformation campaign ended in 1991, along with the USSR, but the myths about the secret origins of HIV and AIDS continue to live on independently, without coordinated propaganda efforts. Viruses and pandemics grow into conspiracy theories because they are invisible to the layman’s eye. Viral strains cannot be touched, counted, or seen even with a microscope.

We can distinguish three major themes for conspiracy theories surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, conspiracy theorists have competed in their speculations about the man-made, artificial origin of Covid-19. Apart from the version about the leakage of “biological weapons” in the Wuhan bio-laboratory, other versions circulated: Covid-19 was developed by the US military or Russian special services. Another version was that it was not an accidental leak at all, but a targeted strike with biological weapons. Usually, conspiracy theorists speculated that it was done to enslave humanity, of course. The second topic was the anti-Covid measures. Who benefits from this? Large corporations to bankrupt small businesses that are idling closed because of Covid-19 while Amazon, OZON, and AliExpress continue to send out their packages? Here, just as in the first example, the secret world government is again colluding with multinational corporations to enslave humanity. With the development and introduction of Covid-19 vaccines, a third wave of Covid conspiracy has risen: the secret world government has decided to alter the genome of humanity. The worldwide conspiracy to enslave humanity enters its third and final phase.

However, not all criticism of anti-Covid measures, not all talk about the origin of Covid-19, and not all questioning of the side effects of anti-Covid vaccines is a conspiracy theory. Citizens of countries that have adopted severe anti-Covid restrictions have the right to ask their governments about the proportionality of such measures. For example, many people in Great Britain were outraged that at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the country’s prime minister hosted parties at his residence while British citizens were not even allowed to meet relatives who did not live with them. Spain’s Supreme Court ordered to return to the citizens the fines they paid for violating the anti-Covid measures, recognizing those restrictions as unconstitutional. The World Health Organization (WHO) has rightly rebuked the Chinese authorities for refusing to provide complete data on the start of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan. The efficacy of vaccines that are not WHO-certified is questionable, and vaccinees have every right to know and speak out about possible side effects of vaccination.

But let’s get back to the Covid conspiracy theories. Let’s take four countries: Germany, Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. Each of these countries had their own conspiracy narratives around the Covid-19 pandemic.

In Russia, at the beginning of the pandemic, the state-controlled media reported that the Covid-19 virus posed no serious threat. Many pseudoscientists told of “folk recipes” for preventing and fighting Covid-19. For example, one “folk healer” prescribed breathing vapours of vodka throughout the illness: according to the healer, these vapours were supposed to destroy the strain of the virus in the body. Some of these folk healers were invited to talk shows on federal TV channels, so the “Dr. Myasnikovs” (Dr. Myasnikov’s name became a generic name) gained access to a huge audience. When it came to the development of vaccines, Russian propaganda began to actively spread conspiracy theories about Western vaccines, scaring the average person of immediate death after injection. The message about the dangers of Western vaccines was communicated to both domestic and international audiences and subsequently played a cruel joke on Russia’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign. The audience of Russian TV channels was deeply sceptical of any Covid-19 vaccine, and Russians were extremely hesitant to vaccinate themselves when it was offered voluntarily. At the same time, Russian state-controlled media ran a campaign to glorify Sputnik V as the world’s best and first vaccine against Covid-19. The message about the “world’s first developed Covid-19 vaccine” was picked up by some of the quality media abroad, but researchers point out that the first Covid-19 vaccine was developed in China. The name Sputnik V was also propaganda-inspired: the word “satellite” refers to the world’s first spacecraft launched by the USSR in 1957, and the “V” stands for “victory” in Latin and other European languages, a symbol now actively used to promote Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. When Sputnik V failed to pass WHO and most international agencies’ certification, Russian authorities, and state-controlled media were quick to explain it as a conspiracy against Russia, in which the global West belittles Russian scientific achievements. 

“Already, I think, we can invite bioengineers – they will tell us how it [the Covid-19 virus] was synthesised. It is known that only one country can do this, which has a network of secret bio-laboratories all over the world, including under our noses, in Ukraine. The Americans are busy testing viruses on our, in fact, compatriots. So they have a full arsenal of biological weapons”

Sergey Glazyev, advisor to President Putin, academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences, March 2020

In Belarus, the place of “folk healers” from Russian TV talk shows was taken by the country’s authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, who used the machinist and anti-scientific rhetoric of “fearlessness” before the virus. As a result, Belarus and Sweden were the only countries in Europe to refuse to impose any significant anti-Covid restrictions at the state level. During a visit to the Covid ward, the red zone, Lukashenko bragged about his “fearlessness” of the Covid-19 virus and ostentatiously pulled down his anti-Covid mask, complaining to the doctors in the facility that it was uncomfortable for him to breathe. The burden of fighting the Covid-19 pandemic fell on the shoulders of Belarusian civil society, with activists and independent initiatives providing Covid hospitals and treating medical staff with the necessary protective equipment. Unlike the state, civil society in Belarus took the threats of the pandemic seriously, and the self-organisation of society to fight Covid-19 formed the basis of protests against election fraud and Lukashenko’s dictatorship.

“My advice is not to sweat it. I told you a long time ago, from the very first time: our disease is here, in the head. As soon as you start oohing and aahing and running around – that’s trouble. Young people have nothing to worry about… I want to say to all these international crooks: enough already. They have already emptied our pockets so much that there is nothing left. They’ve already stripped everyone. We should end this pandemic already” 

Lukashenko on the pandemic in January 2021. According to official statistics, Covid-19 killed 6,978 people in Belarus.

The Ukrainian authorities were not involved in the disinformation campaigns surrounding Covid-19 but failed to convince many Ukrainians of the seriousness and danger of the pandemic. Long before the pandemic began, there was already a widely organised anti-vaccination movement in the country. The mass refusal of parents to vaccinate their children against polio had led to localised outbreaks of the disease in the country, which is not typical for economically developed countries. With the beginning of mass vaccination against Covid-19, the Ukrainian anti-vaccinationist movement has found a new point of pressure. Taking advantage of the freedom of assembly in Ukraine, anti-vaccinationists organised marches and rallies against Covid-19 vaccination in Kyiv and other cities. In Kyiv, for example, in November 2021 there were a few thousand protesters. Sources affiliated with Russian propaganda channels in Ukraine disseminated misleading information about the possible dangers of Covid-19 vaccination with vaccines available to Ukrainians at the time (More on this in our article dedicated to Russian propaganda).

“Bill Gates plans to create a 5G digital concentration camp. With the help of a vaccine, a genetically modified mixture is infiltrated into a person and an implant is formed in the body. It will control all indicators of the body and perform tasks from the outside. But most importantly, it will be possible to “mine cryptocurrency” through it. That is, the vaccinated, without knowing it, will become a factory for mining bitcoins. We are talking only about RNA vaccines – Pfizer and Moderna”.

Ukrainian Covid-conspiracy theorist about anti-Covid measures

By the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the country’s Covid-19 vaccination rate remained one of the lowest in Europe: 36 percent of Ukrainians were fully vaccinated against Covid-19 (for comparison: 76 percent of Germans, 67 percent of Belarusians, and 52 percent of Russians were fully vaccinated).

German authorities mostly followed the advice of the scientific community and medical experts in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. Most Germans accepted the coronavirus restrictions, following the advice to keep a social distance, wear masks, and get vaccinated. However, the pandemic exposed something that had been hidden from the German public for some time: millions of people continue to believe in conspiracy theories. Anti-vaxxers and Covid-sceptics staged regular protests and “walkouts” against pandemic-related restrictions and the introduction of Covid-19 vaccination certificates. Often such protesters were previously associated with the far-right Alternative for Germany party and with anti-refugee protests in Germany. Next to a whole range of self-proclaimed “alternative media”, the German version of RT (Russia Today) and other German-language media affiliated with the Kremlin fueled Covid-sceptic attitudes. German politicians seriously discussed blocking the messenger Telegram, which at one point became a breeding ground for conspiracy theories around Covid-19 in Germany. After reading “news” in Telegram chat rooms and channels about the Bill Gates conspiracy and vaccines, many Germans refused to get vaccinated.

After the defeat in World War II, German society made an effort to eradicate and uncover conspiracy theories. After all, conspiracy theories were one breeding ground that allowed the Nazis to grow from a marginal political group into the country’s biggest party, which seized power in Germany and carried out totalitarian terror. Like true viruses, however, conspiracy theories tend not to be completely eradicated but rather remain somewhere on the margins of public discourse. Much like our immune system, when the organism of the public is weakened, in extreme situations such as Covid-19, conspiracy theories come to the fore again.

Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic will not be the last that humanity will have to endure. We can only hope that new pandemics will be less deadly and viruses will be less virulent, i.e. less infectious. The Covid-19 pandemic was a big test for governments and civil societies of different countries. Sometimes there was not only a lack of hospital beds, masks, and oxygen tanks, but also of reliable information about how the virus spreads and ways to protect against it. More dramatically, some governments deliberately misled their own and others’ citizens, spreading conspiracy theories and trying to extract immediate political gains from the pandemic. Mankind coped with the Covid-19 pandemic, but the price we paid for it – more than six million dead worldwide – could have been lower.

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