Times of crisis bring out the best in many people, even as others use the chaos and uncertainty to exploit the situation. In the latter category, one can include the army of faith healers, con artists, pseudo scientists, armchair doctors, hucksters, hoarders, profiteers and shameless politicians who have risen up during the coronavirus pandemic. Touting dubious homeopathic remedies, scientifically unproven cures, medically unsound drugs and treatments these opportunists have also spread disinformation, half-baked theories and urban myths about the cause of the virus to begin with.
Such rampant speculation ranges from the patently absurd — like social-media posts claiming that Russian president Vladimir Putin has released lions on the streets to ensure that Russians stay indoors (good kitties!) — to seemingly logical speculations that eating various organic foods or gargling with hot water will somehow banish COVID-19, whose actual patterns and tendencies are still being determined by researchers.
Some theories are so convoluted and factually unsupportable that they exist as little more than flimsy justifications for xenophobia and overt racism, such as the video making the rounds of sober-voiced quasi expert Mahmoud ElAwadi earnestly proposing that the Chinese government created the virus (which has so far killed thousands of its own citizens) as part of an elaborate ruse to destabilize Western economies in general and prevent the reelection of President Trump specifically.
ElAwadi’s seemingly earnest conclusions rely on a foundation of sketchy assumptions, such as his assertion that if Trump had been removed from office after impeachment, Western civilization would have collapsed immediately (a fate the world somehow avoided when Bill Clinton was impeached or when FDR died in office). Although ElAwadi insists that he is a Democrat and not a Trump supporter, he nonetheless urges that U.S. citizens blindly rally around their leader as the only way to stave off the end of the world. Among other things, Mr. ElAwadi claims that the Chinese government has had a cure for the virus all along, in explaining why that country has reported relatively new cases recently (however, he fails to note that China had a head start since the virus began there weeks before it emerged in other locations).
Such a parochial mindset requires wildly contorting logic and the available scientific evidence in order to recast COVID-19 as a petulant, emotional and judgmental presence that somehow takes partisan sides and confines its impact within only certainly demographic, ethnic and national borders. Typical examples of this kind of hubris include the preponderance of sanctimonious evangelists who have recently determined (in some cases claiming that God told them personally) that the existence and lifestyles of LGBTQ folks have incurred the wrath and vengeance of this apparently thin-skinned and socially intolerant virus. (The virus itself apparently hasn’t gotten the memo yet, as COVID-19 continues to kill people of all ages, ethnic and religious backgrounds, genders and sexual identities.)
And not to say that belief in superstition-based religions and the virulent realities of the latest virus mutation are a bad combination, but karmic reports of the spread of COVID-19 among churchgoers who have gathered at the insistence of their stubborn and all-knowing ministers and preachers — in defiance of medical warnings against large groups of people in the same place — seem to increase daily.
Much of this hysteria and unchecked rumor mongering would be amusing if it weren’t also so deadly. When Trump and other self-styled experts proposed or guessed that the anti-malarial drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine might cure patients, desperate and unsuspecting victims died from using those drugs without proper medical authorization and supervision. The FDA just authorized these drugs for use on Covid-19 patients but we still have yet to see if they will actually work.
At a time of so much confusion and disinformation, along with widely varying responses and mixed messages by governments and official entities in anticipation of (or, in the case of Trump and the United States, belated reaction to) the impending crisis, words matter. The fog of speculation leads to more faulty conclusions, panicked reactions, the hoarding of unnecessary and now-dwindling supplies (including guns), and a distraction from the realities at hand.
The spread of so many theories and miracle potions by newly self-appointed experts and snake-oil peddlers implies that there is a vacuum of verifiable, medically sound information available. But just about all of the advice from actual medical professionals (doctors, nurses, researchers and health advocates) has consistently stuck to the same basic themes of isolation as the best form of prevention. Washing hands repeatedly and doing the mask-gloves-sanitizer shuffle simply isn’t as glamorous as getting swept away by the latest quack-doctor cure-all or stitching together everything that’s wrong in the world today into one convenient, tidy bundle of tightly held conspiracies.
There is indeed something exhilarating about believing that you are the only person who sees behind the curtain and divines the secret habits and belief systems of an amoral virus. It feeds into the apocalyptic divide-and-conquer notion that only some of us can or will be saved, and that those of us who make it will not be chosen randomly but will instead be selected by divine intervention and one’s ranking in various geographic, ethnic, spiritual and socioeconomic categories. If the world is going to be flooded by an all-knowing, scientifically impervious and revenge-minded virus, what can be more comforting than to believe that only your team (or country or family or gender) will survive the selection process by climbing onto the correct modern equivalent to Noah’s ark and through the simple act of knowing the right prayer to utter, as well as which social groups to vilify and disparage as “the other”?
The placement and enforcement of rigid moral structures is comforting for many people. It implies that only “bad” or immoral folks will be chosen by God to die. How much one disinfects oneself or isolates from others isn’t nearly as relevant to these minds as much as which political party someone belongs to, or the color of their skin or how hard they pray. The Christian concept of trying to save everybody gives way now to an implied assumption that only some of us will (or deserve to) survive, and those who do will be selected on the basis of how sternly they keep other people out of their bomb shelters and hideouts and enforce moral distancing as opposed to physical distancing.
At a time when even the leaders of both major political parties and officeholders on the local, state and federal levels aren’t paying lip service to their own urgent warnings and proclamations — standing side by side in large groups at press conferences, eschewing masks and gloves during speeches while similarly unprotected journalists film and interview them from a foot away — it’s easy to lose hope or just give up in the face of so much conflicting information and distracting theories.
It also doesn’t help that we live in a technologically advanced age in which finding useful information is seemingly more difficult than it has to be. Many people don’t take the time to research things fully in an era when much of what used to serious, in-depth journalistic reporting has been reduced to a series of vapid, quick sound bites on TV or caption-length news articles derived from secondhand sources with little specific information.
Paranoid theories and unfounded speculation will continue, if only because so many people are sitting around now with little to do but obsessively spin over the same social-media posts and panic-inducing theories and jump through hoops to the same preordained conclusions. The uncertainty of something unprecedented like this, on this scale in the modern era, understandably leads to extensive fear and worry.
The more ridiculous conspiracy theories drown out valid questions about how to deal with the virus and set the stage for the diminishing of civil liberties, which could prove to be relevant long after the virus has eventually faded away. Most people understand the need for some kind of enforced order as a way of controlling the pandemic and limiting its reach. But, at the same time, the idea that one should let one’s guard down completely and trust authority figures implicitly is dangerously naive given the venality and opportunism of politicians like Trump when they are handed too much authority. This won’t be the first tragedy and emergency in which fear of the unknown will be used as a justification to crack down on dissent. The idea of civil liberties being tossed casually aside — for our own good, of course — is potentially more worrisome than the virus itself.
At this time, the only genuine leaders who can be trusted appear to be the doctors, nurses, technicians, researchers and health workers who are putting their own lives on the line and have witnessed firsthand the human and emotional cost of already overburdened emergency rooms and medical facilities. Along with numerous store clerks and delivery people who have been enlisted as a form of human barrier and buffer zone between the disease and housebound customers, they know better than anybody that the dramatically rising numbers of victims dying or infected with COVID-19 are a cruel, grim and verifiable reality in contrast to the lazy-minded speculation of ignorant gossips and the fake cures promoted by unethical opportunists. This misinformation and gossip, along with the criminally belated response by officials in this country, brought us to where we are today. We must listen directly to those who possess actual firsthand knowledge and ignore the increasing buzz of static coming from self-serving charlatans, because the lives we save might not just be our own.