Pandemic Conspiracies and Politics
2019 saw the rise of a novel coronavirus strain that caused a respiratory disease called COVID-19. By early 2020, COVID-19 was a global pandemic that triggered the largest public health emergency the world had ever seen, with unprecedented quarantines and lockdowns that spanned entire continents. Conspiracy theories about the cause of the virus spread online, and political groups leveraged COVID-19 as a political weapon to promote various nationalist causes. Some said these distasteful responses to the pandemic were previously unheard of, and that perhaps the existence of the Internet is what made this particular pandemic bring out the worst in some of us. However a look through the history books reveals that there is, in fact, nothing about the 2020 pandemic that hasn't characterized most of the rest of history's worst disease outbreaks. Today we're going to look at some of the most infamous of these cases, and compare the conspiracy theories and political weaponizations of centuries past to those of today.
Conspiracy theories were probably the most predictable offshoot from the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the earliest went straight for the low-hanging fruit and placed the blame on prominent billionaires. Bill Gates was an obvious target. The Gates Foundation funds a lot of medical research, and someone uncovered that in 2015 a Gates Foundation grantee patented a process for developing a vaccine for chickens to protect them from an avian coronavirus. That work was done under a different grant that had nothing to do with the Gates Foundation grant, and that avian coronavirus had nothing to do with the COVID-19 coronavirus; but since when has a conspiracy theory ever needed to make any sense?
Later, someone decided that COVID-19 doesn't actually exist at all, and was just a cover story for the made-up disease 5G Syndrome. In Skeptoid #677 we went all through the false belief that 5G cell phone signals are harmful, but there have been anti-technology activists who have opposed virtually every new use for radio since the invention of radio. The idea of a worldwide sickness in roughly the same time frame as 5G cell networks were beginning to roll out was just too attractive a match for their narrative, so this particular conspiracy theory is one we should have seen coming.
But the COVID-19 conspiracy theory that proved to have by far the longest legs — and that dovetailed perfectly into the political weaponization of the pandemic — was the claim that it was an engineered bioweapon, either deliberately or accidentally released from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, an actual disease research institute that happens to be in the same Chinese province as the street markets where the first cases of COVID-19 were observed. From a microbiological perspective, this claim was trivial to disprove. We'd already sequenced the novel coronavirus' genome and knew all about its evolutionary development from other coronaviruses, and could quite easily see that it had none of the markers that result from genetic engineering. Further, if it had been a bioweapon, it would have been the worst one ever: real bioweapons like anthrax have kill ratios of at least 50%, and the novel coronavirus appears to be around 2%.
But from the perspective of political ideology, attaching Chinese blame to COVID-19 perfectly reflected what was happening in the United States at the time. For one thing, the two nations were involved in a drawn-out trade war that had cost both economies dearly. For another, President Donald Trump had risen to power largely on the populist notion of nationalism which blamed practically everything on immigrants and foreigners. Trump even made an ill-fated attempt to rebrand the coronavirus as the "Chinese Virus". At the same time, inside China, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs endorsed a conspiracy theory that the coronavirus had been brought to China by American soldiers who competed in the Military World Games in Wuhan in October 2019 — a story that quickly spread throughout Chinese social media. While both governments seemed to flub their early emergency responses to the pandemic, they were both right on point when it came to exploiting it as a political weapon against one another.
Any student of history would know that false conspiracy theories and political weaponization are sure to accompany any major disease outbreak. To see just how predictably routine today's reactions to COVID-19 are, all we need to do is go back in time — just slightly back — about 700 years, to medieval Europe as it was just beginning to feel the pangs of The Black Death.
The Black Death
The Black Death was a worldwide pandemic of bubonic plague that ravaged the middle of the 14th century. It was so devastating that it's not even clear how many people died; estimates cover an entire order of magnitude, from 25 million to 200 million — over half the world's entire population. Its impact changed the course of every human endeavor. Spread by the bite of the rat flea — which love to bite humans after their host rats die — plague killed most victims within 10 days, most of which was an incubation period. If you developed flu-like symptoms, chances were that you had about 72 hours to live.
Humankind's native paranoia kicked right into gear and sought someone to blame. Who brought this plague upon Europe? It's not hard to guess who medieval Europeans might have turned to as a scapegoat: that stateless people upon whom history has always focused its worst suspicions, the Jews. Anti-Semitism flourished in the 14th century, and as the plague spread, so did rumors that Jews were seen poisoning wells. Jewish populations had already been chased away from much of Europe by the Crusades, and by the time of the Black Death most of them lived in isolated communities. A belief arose that Jews, perhaps in resentment of the success of the Crusades, sought a retaliatory reduction in the population of gentiles. As the effects of the plague grew, so too did unprovoked attacks against Jews.
1348 and 1349 saw many coordinated attacks against Jewish communities: the Erfurt Massacre, the Basel Massacre, the Aragon Massacre, the Flanders Massacre. Some of these were unspeakable. On Valentine's Day 1349, 2,000 Jews in Strasbourg are believed to have been killed, several hundred of whom in mass public burnings; and the entire Jewish community of 3,000 in Mainz, Germany was besieged by Christians, and every living person inside was murdered.
The only "evidence" ever discovered linking Jews to the Black Death was that they seemed to be immune to it. They weren't, of course; however this may have been an understandable error, as adherence to Jewish traditions meant that they washed their hands and bodies more often than did other Europeans of the day, and the relative isolation of having their own communities gave them some measure of protection. Some Jews did confess to having poisoned the wells, but the only such confessions were all the result of torture. Blaming the Jews for conspiring to poison all the gentiles was about as predictable a conspiracy theory as was ever conceived.
As one who writes professionally on conspiracy theories, I'm pretty weary of seeing the Jewish people on the receiving end so often. But nowhere was this more dramatic than during the worst disease outbreak of World War II.
Typhus is a bacterial infection borne by body lice, and it thrives best in dirty, crowded conditions when washing and laundry are hard to come by. Typhus often thrives during wartime, and in the mass relocations of World War II, it became epidemic. Untreated — as it was in the cases we'll discuss — epidemic typhus kills up to 60% of those infected.
The conspiracy theory associated with typhus comes from the darkest underbelly of that community: the Holocaust deniers. Those few Holocaust deniers who acknowledge the fact that some six million Jews died at the hands of the Nazis often claim that those deaths were merely the result of typhus, brought on by their own unsanitary lifestyle; and that any attempt to recharacterize the deaths as murders is — itself — motivated by anti-Aryan racism.
The weaponizing of typhus for political purposes by the Nazis was perhaps the most repugnant such case in all of history. Throughout Poland, Nazis confined Jewish populations into ghettos, a few city blocks around which the Nazis built literal walls. Publicly, this was said to be quarantining of people infected with typhus to protect the rest; but in reality, it was a deliberate effort to infect all remaining Jews with the disease in the hope that many of them would die. Inside the ghettos, changes of clothes and water for bathing were unavailable; so typhus raged through the squalid communities. Of the estimated 3 million Europeans who died of typhus in World War II, these diseased ghettos were probably the fate of most of them. Yet Nazi propagandists were able to say the quarantines were public health measures.
The exploitation of typhus as a political weapon continues even today. In 2018, the cities of Los Angeles, California and nearby Pasadena had a sort of mini-outbreak of a different type of typhus called murine typhus, which is endemic to the region and is much less dangerous. And rather than being carried by body lice, murine typhus is carried by fleas — the type of fleas that infest common house pets like cats and dogs. Nearly 200 people developed murine typhus; and if ever there was a headline to create tremendous alarm, it's that a medieval disease like typhus was spreading in one of the world's most modern cities.
Los Angeles is also known for its homeless population, and some of the typhus victims were indeed homeless — though none of the victims in Pasadena were. The issue of homeless populations is an eternal political hot potato in sunny southern California; some people want to assist the homeless, and other people want to kick them out. Hearing the scary word "typhus" and conflating it with the more familiar type that flourished in the unwashed clothing and unbathed bodies of the World War II Jewish ghetto victims, the anti-homeless factions rallied City Hall with renewed calls for the homeless encampments to be bulldozed, and their possessions seized and destroyed in the name of public health — disdainful of the fact that few of the infected were homeless. The homeless were innocent scapegoats, exploited to further a political agenda during a mini-outbreak.
And so we should hardly be surprised to see headlines in 2020 like "Spit On, Yelled At, Attacked: Chinese-Americans Fear for Their Safety" and "FBI warns of potential surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans amid coronavirus" and "What's spreading faster than coronavirus in the US? Racist assaults and ignorant attacks against Asians". Conspiracy theories and political weaponization of tragedies are neither rare nor unexpected; they are the rule, not the exception. Seek them out. Recognize and identify them, so that you can be part of the solution and not a collaborator to one of humanity's ugliest tendencies.
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