2020, the year of conspiracy theories: As COVID-19 gripped the world, so did the desire for easy answers
Conspiracy theories offer simple, understandable explanations of events and help us regain a belief in human control over situations.
Joining the Dots is a fortnightly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire.
The happiest event of 2020, its end, is now only 15 days away – and what an extraordinary year it’s been. Lockdowns in countries around the world, 1.62 million dead and counting, economies shattered, the meaning of everyday activities such as “going to school” and “going to office” changed. There’s no doubt that this was the Year of the Pandemic. It dominated the lives of people in countries around the world, and it will probably continue to do so for at least the year to come. The first doses of the first successful vaccine are now being administered in the United States and United Kingdom, and the action is now shifting to the next stage of containing the disease. Naturally, excitement and fear among anti-vaxxers who believe the whole thing is a plot for world domination by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, is reaching a fever pitch.
Right from the beginning of the pandemic, this kind of magical thinking has been a steady accompaniment to the spread of COVID-19. In India, it started with the initial reactions encapsulated in the famous slogan “go corona, corona go”, which was accompanied, in one memorable instance, by a vigorous beating of metal plates around the country. The theory that got millions of people banging pots and pans was popularised in a WhatsApp forward which claimed that the vibrations produced by the sound would destroy the coronavirus. Versions of this theory found many backers among educated and rich people, including superstar Amitabh Bachchan, who on 22 March tweeted to his 40.5 million followers that clapping and “shankh vibrations”, meaning vibrations produced by blowing a conch shell, would “reduce/destroy virus potency”.
A string of cow urine drinking parties was also organised around the country by those who believe in the magical powers of that cola to cure all ills. In Kolkata, the party ended when one of the organisers, a political party worker, was arrested after some of the consumers of the magic potion sadly fell ill. Perhaps realising that the virus would not be beaten so easily, the big boys now got into the act. A government organisation funded by taxpayer money touted “panchagavya” as the next wonder-drug against COVID. This substance, which is made from the unbeatable combination of cow urine, cow dung, cow milk, cow butter and cow ghee, was readied for “clinical trials” in ten hospitals starting with the state-run Civil Hospital in Rajkot, Gujarat. The results of those “clinical trials” are unknown.
One miraculous invention from the brilliant scientific minds at Baba Ramdev’s company Patanjali however made headlines. This was the reported success, in clinical trials held in Jaipur and at the company’s own facilities in Haridwar, of the wonder drug “coronil”. Patanjali initially claimed “100% recovery from coronavirus infection within 7 days” for patients treated with coronil. When questions rose over this rather astounding claim, the company simply rebranded the drug as an immunity-booster and released it into the market, where in four months it sold a healthy 85 lakh units worth over Rs 240 crore.
This series of “atma nirbhar” or self-dependent efforts sadly could not prevent India from reaching second rank globally in the COVID tally with a total of 9.91 million cases and 1,44,000 deaths recorded so far. The accuracy of those numbers is anyone’s guess. However, taking them at face value, we will have to conclude that despite everything, including a population more than four times bigger and considerably poorer, we have not done as badly as Donald Trump’s America. Under his leadership, that superpower and erstwhile leader of the free world has managed to have 16.6 million cases of COVID so far in which 3,01,000 people have died.
That achievement might not have been possible without the unflinching faith of Trump supporters who refused to wear masks or observe social distancing because they had been told that there was no such thing as COVID — the President himself having proclaimed that the whole thing was a “hoax”. The disease, as far as they were concerned, simply did not exist. Many of them went to their graves secure in that belief, gasping for breath and probably wondering what mysterious ailment had gotten to them.
The belief in mysterious forces working in conspiratorial ways was popular in 2020 even in fields outside of medicine. We saw it in India over three months of ceaseless and breathless “investigations” into the sudden death of filmstar Sushant Singh Rajput by what appeared to be a clear case of suicide. However, this explanation did not satisfy a lot of people, who were convinced it was murder, despite the lack of any evidence to support such a notion.
Folks in America with similar mindsets are now clinging to the notion that the US Presidential elections were rigged in favour of Democrat candidate Joe Biden who defeated Trump in the polls. Normally, the person and party in power are suspected of rigging, since they hold the controls on the levers of power. Trump is the sitting president, and the elections were held under his watch. Most US states still use hand-marked paper ballots — the only unhackable method — so the chances of the opposition managing a massive rigging exercise against him without being detected appear negligible. There is zero evidence that massive rigging has taken place. This lack of evidence, as usual, has failed to convince the believers.
Ultimately, belief is not about evidence at all. It is not primarily a matter of logic for most people. Billions of humans for thousands of years have continued to believe passionately in gods none of them has ever seen; all manner of things have been taken as signs from an invisible, omnipresent and omnipotent deity. The human mind probably craves emotional satisfaction over the intellectual. Logic is typically applied in defence of beliefs after the mind has already been made up. Arguments are then constructed to support cherished beliefs.
Sometimes these arguments take the form of conspiracy theories. The anxieties and uncertainties of the world are too many, and its workings too complex. A conspiracy theory is an emotionally and intellectually satisfying explanation of things for many. In times of stress, such as the kind brought about by the pandemic, it is natural that these theories will gain in popularity. They offer simple, understandable explanations of events and help us regain a belief in human control over situations. It is easier, in our modern world, to believe that COVID happened because evil people did it than to believe, as our ancestors would, that it was “an act of god”. And it is easier, certainly, to bang pots and pans as a way of doing something about it, than it is to invent a vaccine, or wait patiently and helplessly for months or years for one.
At the level of events, 2020 was the Year of the Pandemic, but the ideas that flowed through our phones and social media feeds this year would suggest another name might be more apt: it was also the Year of the Conspiracy Theory.
Buckle up. A full blossoming of some of these theories awaits the world in 2021.
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