Written by Huanan Liao
Edited by Daniel Yu
The global context
Since COVID-19 first appeared in early January, it has been spreading across the globe and wreaking havoc in numerous communities unabated. Now the global pandemic has already claimed more than a million human lives, infected tens of millions of people, and kept haunting our collective psyche as well as late-night dreams of everyone on earth. It has also brought multitudes of profound changes to our way of life. The al-fresco life, for most parts of the world, is retreating indoors. Social-distancing measures, varying in degrees, have brought a long halt to the good old days. Perhaps more importantly, it has, to a significant extent, fragmented the interconnected and globalized community of ours. The familiar world as we knew it, is now temporarily gone.
COVID-19’s ramifications in general
There is little doubt, at this moment, that the still-rampant coronavirus will leave the world wretchedly bruised and traumatized for a while, given its abhorrent track record to date. But, the fight against the common enemy is not entirely devoid of hopes. For one, we are making concrete progress with the help of technological and medical advancements, to lessen human suffering. On the other hand, the coronavirus has exposed a lot of social and political maladies, one of which is severely hindering our progress: disinformation. It has had a truly detrimental impact on our recovery. In this article, we will examine its impacts and causes.
The Wu-flu, anti-maskers and cell towers
There is no dearth of conspiracy theories bumping around and getting the clicks and shares of the woefully ill-informed on social media platforms virtually unchecked, especially in this hectic age of COVID-19. Although Canadians are generally less prone to conspiracy theories, this situation is still very problematic. As the coronavirus spreads, so does deranged woo-woo.
Crowds gathered to fiercely oppose social-distancing measures being implemented by the health authorities, to denounce the use of masks and lockdown measures. Even 5G towers have become an unfortunate target of laughable hatred and were set ablaze. But these at-most-insensitive claims pale in comparison with some other truly unhinged alternatives.
Nowadays it is hardly a surprise to have heard of reckless and wild conspiracy theories that tiedlessly drivel about some clandestine cabals beholden to the interests of invisible actors in Big Brother or big corporations. This year is no exception. But the involvement of states and media further complicated the dynamic. The waters are muddy enough, with earlier a Chinese diplomat suggesting “It might be the US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan”, in a series of questioning U.S. transparency with regard to its published data last year. Across the Atlantic, U.S. President Donald Trump labelled the coronavirus as “Chinese virus”, along with his henchmen in promoting conspiracy theories, one of which claimed that the coronavirus originated from a Wuhan virology laboratory. This state-sponsored exchange of jaw-dropping political accusations between the two superpowers was done to their mutual detriment. Indeed, such baseless speculations are best consigned to dustbins in this unparalleled time of global panic and paranoia, as these theories have been debunked by scientific research.
The unwanted involvement of geopolitics
Nevertheless, this round of tit-for-tat finger-pointing indeed reflected growing divisions on the international landscape, centred around the axis of Sino-American conflicts on multiple fronts, including hi-technology, economy, human rights issues, and so on. It has added oil to the bonfire of discontent in this already-frayed and uneasy relationship. The blame game has simmered down a bit, but it nonetheless persists. In the recent UN’s 75th General Assembly, while Chinese president Xi Jinping called for global cooperation in the face of COVID-19, U.S. President Donald Trump kept lashing out at China for “unleashing the plague onto the world”, in a vein attempt to shift the blame from his administration’s abject failure in containing the pandemic at home to a Bank-Aid scapegoat. The spirit of whataboutism is on vivid display. This latest incident not only serves as a stark contrast between the belligerent attitude adopted by the Trump administration and the relatively peaceable one displayed by China. It was also a clear indication of the deep fracture between the two countries and the troubling implication of excessive politicization, as the tinfoil-hat blame game still goes on. However, endless quarrels will not solve anything, especially when the world is in dire need of leadership and the undertaking of shared responsibility. Little wonder why many world leaders expressed genuine concerns about this, as the relationship between China and the United States is arguably one of the most consequential in the 21st century.
With both countries playing a pivotal role in world affairs, it is vital that the two countries cooperate despite their differences, at least in the moment of crisis, and actively seek ways to co-exist peacefully. China has already made it abundantly clear that the country has little intention of continually engaging in political hatred and hysteria, by virtue of President Xi’s genuine call for international cooperation. On the flip side, if President Trump is sincere about “Making America Great Again”, he should have the gumption as well as humidity to join China to take on joint leaderships, instead of venting China-bashing sentiments to attempt achieving immediate political ends with the likes of Mike Pempeo and other China hawks in White House. This politically-charged sentiment is to be lamented. But on a more optimistic note, if circumstances do not improve under the current leadership, at least we can still pin our hopes on November for a change of approach.
It is scary enough to have well-calculating machines working in the Ministry of Truth, spilling political propaganda at the time of an extraordinary health crisis. It is equally disturbing to see self-styled activist-truth-teller hybrids, influenced by conspiracy theories of various kinds, indoctrinating and galvanizing the masses to take to the street. Legions of people believe in their drivel and go into hysterical frenzy on the streets, blatantly running afoul of COVID-19 restrictions, in the name of protecting people’s “lasting liberties”. They denounce the use of masks, while being willfully blind to its effectiveness in the curb of transmission of coronavirus. (An important disclaimer: those who have health-related issues or circumstances that prevent them from comfortably wearing a mask should not be included in the same category and should be exempted.) They vociferously oppose lockdown measures (target or full) and contact-tracing applications, when they have been proven to be effective in many countries, including China and Italy (where draconian lockdown was effectively imposed) and South Korea (where contact-tracing digital techniques were rigorously applied and target shutdown was imposed). While it is perfectly understandable that many, if not most, people have legitimate grievances with regards to the extent to which restrictions are imposed, the painful facts on the ground evince the necessity of a certain degree of individual sacrifices to secure a better tomorrow.
Underlying in many of these sentiments is people’s deep distrust in institutions of authority. As Joe Pierre in an article on Psychology Today argues, “[mistrust] lies at the core of conspiracy theory beliefs, since they necessarily require the rejection of authoritative accounts of reality. ” The government is partly to blame, given its sometimes inconsistency in its published information and guidelines which is understandable, given the speed at which the novel coronavirus evolves. But it is also about the public’s ability to carefully discern reliable information, and separate it from sensationalism and toxic conspiracy theories. This is a big subject to tackle if we want to effectively stop the paralleled epidemic of disinformation and keep its promulgation at bay.
TL;DR: Illuminati CONFIRMED!