The Other Contagion
Mar 30, 2020 | Judy Maynard, Oved Lobel
Conspiracy theories multiply like viruses
With great crises come great conspiracy theories, and the novel coronavirus pandemic currently rampaging throughout the world is no exception. During times of great uncertainty and anxiety, as the world is now experiencing, conspiracy theories can provide a comforting framework for divining sense and reason from chaos and seemingly random tragedies. Some may find the thought of a nefarious mastermind causing immense global destruction more comforting than the idea that nobody has the slightest control over what is happening.
The novelty and scale of the current crisis has also allowed false information to rush in and fill the information gap.
None of this is helpful and some are extremely harmful. Moreover, some are exploiting the coronavirus crisis to spread conspiratorial hatred and antisemitism.
One form of false information involves spruiking disastrous snake oil cures to the gullible and desperate, whether through ignorance or willful deception and exploitation.
Ayatollah Abbas Tabrizian, for example, acclaimed by supporters as the father of “Islamic medicine of Iran”, has prescribed a miracle cure for the novel coronavirus: the application of violet oil to the anus. Even other Shi’ite clerics, such as Grand Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi (more about him later) have rejected this, noting that there is no such thing as “Islamic medicine” as such. Thankfully, at least, the cure is harmless.
Other “cures” are far less benign. Dozens of people died in Iran after drinking industrial-strength alcohol based on rumours it cured the virus. A Nigerian talent manager, Bizzle Osikoya, tweeted a fake news chyron claiming cocaine cured the virus. This was retweeted and ‘liked’ thousands of times, forcing an incredulous French Government to officially warn people against using cocaine at all, much less to cure coronavirus.
In the US, backers of QAnon, a far-right conspiracy theory cult, have been advocating drinking bleach to cure the virus. One of its online commentators claimed YouTube had been deleting his videos discussing this “cure” because “Big Pharma wants you ignorant.”
QAnon advocates have also been pushing the bizarre theory that Bill and Melinda Gates created the virus to depopulate the world.
Meanwhile, the state of Missouri is suing notorious televangelist Jim Bakker for promoting and selling “Silver Solution” as a cure for the virus. Bakker has spent time in prison for defrauding his viewers of millions of dollars in the past.
Prejudice and blame-shifting
Conspiracy theories can be cynically employed for a number of other reasons: stirring up existing prejudices, blaming rival governments, diverting attention from one’s own failings. All these have been at play during the current crisis.
Hatred of the US and Israel has led some Arab outlets to accuse them of creating the virus in order to profit by selling vaccines.
For instance, Saudi columnist Sa’ud Al-Shehry wrote for Al-Watan in early February that “A ‘wonder’ virus was discovered yesterday in China; tomorrow it will be discovered in Egypt, but it will not be discovered either today, tomorrow or the day after tomorrow in the U.S. or Israel…” Unfortunately, the latter prediction has turned out to be very wide of the mark.
Similarly, one of the key kingmakers of Iraq, militia leader and Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, tweeted on March 11, “I was taken aback when Trump said: ‘We are doing a great job against the coronavirus, and the situation would have been worse had it not been for our intervention.’ Oh, Trump, you and others like you are suspected of being behind the spread of this disease, especially since most of those suffering from it are opponents of America.”
Egyptian journalist Ahmad Rif’at wrote, “American factories are the first to manufacture every kind of virus and bacteria, from the virulent smallpox virus and the bubonic plague virus to all the viruses we saw in the recent years, such as mad cow disease and swine flu.” Introducing COVID-19 to Wuhan “is not only intended to worry China, trouble it and cause it to spend billions of dollars on emergency measures and medicines – which, by the way, will be manufactured by an Israeli company… The U.S. wants to inform the world, and especially China itself, as part of a propaganda war targeting [China’s] prestige and status, that [China] is still a backward country whose citizens eat bat soup and which exports diseases and epidemics to the rest of the world!”
Blame the Jews!
And, of course, what would a global pandemic be without variations of blood libels being promoted on state television channels. In Turkey, one commentator said, “Jews, Zionists have organised & engineered #Corona virus as biological weapon just like bird flu & Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever (CCHF). They want to design the world, seize countries, neuter the world’s population.”
That the Jews wish to reduce the world’s population for unclear reasons seems to be a popular trope among antisemites. Notorious white supremacist David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, also wondered on Twitter, “Are Israel and the Global Zionist elite up to their old tricks?”
Meanwhile, Hollywood actress Rosanna Arquette published a tweet suggesting Israel was behind the outbreak, because it had been “working on a coronavirus vaccine for a year already… (so they knew).” She was referring to reports an Israeli institute had developed a vaccine for a different coronavirus afflicting chickens that might also work for COVID-19. She deleted the tweet following a backlash.
Similarly, the Algerian news outlet Al Masdar published a conspiracy theory with the headline, “A Zionist organisation is behind the coronavirus and the Zionist entity (Israel) claims to have found the vaccine.”
False accusations that Israeli hospitals are treating Jews and non-Jews differently or that Israel’s Ministry of Health is only publishing health information for staying safe from coronavirus in Hebrew have also been rife. These claims have been coming from some groups and individuals who routinely accuse Israel of Apartheid and state-sponsored racism.
Conspiracy theories postulating that coronavirus was created for biowarfare have come from a number of sources. In Iran, for example, both state-sponsored outlet Press TV and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard have been promoting the theory that the virus is a US-manufactured bioweapon.
The Russians have been doing likewise. The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reports that Russian biologist Igor Nikulin, supposedly a former member of the UN Commission on Biological and Chemical Weapons, was interviewed in February on Russia Today’s Arabic-language channel and claimed that coronavirus’s effects in China, Iran, and Italy were no coincidence, having been carefully selected to affect countries that rival the US. This was, he said, a conspiracy by the “global government,” which consists of 200 families that control over US$400 trillion, own the media outlets and Hollywood, control human minds, and want to decrease the world’s population by 90%.
Nikulin also told a Russian talk show that Britain had created the virus as a weapon, and that they and the Americans already had a vaccine. He suggested that a UK Ministry of Defence facility was responsible for producing both COVID-19 and the Salisbury chemical weapon attack on Russian defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in 2018: “the same facility that I suspect was behind smearing the nerve agent on Skripal’s door handle. Maybe they smeared something in Wuhan, Hubei, too, such as an escalator handrail on the subway – something thousands of people touch daily.”
Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who previously revealed to the world that the Holocaust is a myth and that there are no homosexuals in Iran, tweeted, “It is clear to the world that the mutated coronavirus was produced in lab, manufactured by the warfare stock houses of biological war belonging to world powers, & that it constitutes a threat on humanity more destructive than the other weapons that target humanity.”
China, where COVID-19 originated, has been criticised for its slow and secretive response to the outbreak that has led to a global catastrophe. But it has also been the target of conspiracy theorists, who claim the virus originated in a laboratory in Wuhan. In one version, the virus “escaped” due to lax safety protocols. In another, it was created as a bioweapon.
Right-wing US radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh suggested that the virus “got out” and was “probably … a ChiCom (Chinese Communist) laboratory experiment that is in the process of being weaponised.”
Another US right-wing media personality, Josh Bernstein, argued that coronavirus was “a Democratic Party and a media establishment made-up pandemic. I believe that because Russia didn’t work, and Ukraine didn’t work, and impeachment didn’t work, they are so hell-bent on destroying this country [and] this president to gain back power that they probably worked with the Chinese government, and they devised this plan. They allowed their medical deep state to release this virus into the American public, to scare the living daylights out of everybody to shut down the economy, to shut down the markets, and to stop the Trump rallies.”
Recently China has claimed to have reined in the epidemic, and blames new cases on “foreign arrivals.” Moreover, in a transparent attempt to deflect blame, China is now pointing the finger at the US for the outbreak, saying the disease might have been introduced by members of the US military who visited Wuhan in October last year. It offers no evidence to back this up. The consensus amongst scientific experts in infectious diseases is that the virus is new and its origin is in nature.
A divine plan?
As is to be expected when catastrophe strikes, religious figures have claimed it to be divine retribution, offering a variety of grounds for the Almighty’s pique.
One anonymous preacher on the Palestinian Authority’s official TV station referred to the virus as “one of Almighty Allah’s soldiers… He is unleashing it on those who attack his believers.” He also referred to it as a test of belief for Muslims, and called its victims “martyrs”, as has Iran.
Meanwhile, Shi’ite Iraqi Islamic scholar Hadi Al-Modarresi insisted, “It is obvious that the spread of this virus is an act of Allah,” and said, “Allah sent a disease upon” the Chinese because of their treatment of the Muslim Uighur minority.
On the other hand, an Israeli ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Meir Mazuz, announced that the virus was divine punishment for gay pride parades, whereas the high casualties in Iran, which doesn’t host gay pride parades, was punishment for its hatred of Israel.
Self-harm via conspiracy theory
To witness the twisted world of conspiracy theories and the hateful environments in which they can flourish, we have only to turn to Iran. Asked by the pragmatic conservative Iranian Hamdeli daily whether it would be permissible for Iran to purchase a COVID-19 vaccine from Israel if it succeeded in developing one, Ayatollah Shirazi’s published response was that it was forbidden to do so “if we know for certain that the profit made by the companies [manufacturing it] will go to the Zionists and Israel, unless this is the only medicine [available] and there is no other alternative. In the latter case, it is not forbidden [to buy and use the vaccine].” That same day his office issued a denial of the report, calling it “a complete lie. No question on this matter was submitted [to us] and no answer was issued. We repeat our announcement that rumours of this sort are the work of people with ill intentions.”
Meanwhile, although Iran has been devastated by coronavirus, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has refused US offers of assistance to combat the disease. Referring to conspiracy theories Iran has helped promulgate claiming that the virus is an American creation, he said, “I do not know how real this accusation is but when it exists, who in their right mind would trust you to bring them medication? Possibly your medicine is a way to spread the virus more.” Making the ludicrous claim that the virus “is specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians which they have obtained through different means”, he added, “You might send people as doctors and therapists, maybe they would want to come here and see the effect of the poison they have produced in person.”
Such is the tragedy of so losing touch with reality you believe the conspiracy theories you yourself have invented.