Conspiracy Theories About COVID Vaccine Are A Symptom Of Political Alienation
I was in Pakistan as the COVID-19 pandemic started and the silly and smart lockdowns ensued in quick succession. Even in the very beginning the public mood seemed to be largely dismissive, ‘Oh its nothing’, ‘oh they are just trying to divert attention’, ‘oh it’s the Americans trying to rule the world by creating another virus’. And someone no less than the President of the United States fanned these theories by calling it a ‘China virus’ and downplaying the threat it posed. He was joined in that attitude by all the right wing populist leaders, from Bolsanaro of Brazil to Rodrigo Duterte of Philippines to even the minor ones like our very own Imran Khan.
Now with the COVID-19 vaccines on the scene, here in the United Kingdom, there are increasing concerns about high levels of rejection of vaccine offers among ethnic minorities and poorer segments of the society. Why is that when the very same minorities have paradoxically suffered the most at the hands of the pandemic?
Conspiracy theories about the vaccine abound, even among my friends and family. The more outlandish the theory, most tightly knit and tidy the internal structure of them. The top three that I have come across merit a mention:
• They’ve put micro-chips in the vaccine to monitor and control the public.
• COVID-19 vaccines would render people infertile.
• Global pharmaceutical industry is out to make money and they’ve not tested their vaccine enough and want to market these without concern for public health. The governments are in on that conspiracy.
I shall briefly review each of the above, not necessarily to change the minds of the ones who have sworn allegiance to them, but to illustrate some social and political forces at work here.
The micro-chip theory is an old one, especially among libertarians in the United States and now of course among many on the Right of the political spectrum. Like all conspiracy theories, it is premised upon a legitimate concern, except that it distracts from the real conspiracy actually going on. The corporations and governments don’t need to inject micro-chips on the sly to monitor our movements—they can already do all of that through our mobile phones especially smart phones. In fact, smart phones can even tell them in real time, what you like, who you like and how you vote among others. The concern about privacy is real, it is just not through micro-chips.
The infertility conspiracy theory is well known to the ones working on hitherto incomplete polio vaccination in Pakistan and the promotion of iodized salt. In this instance, nothing more than insecure toxic masculinity is at play here. In societies predicated on visceral fear of female sexuality, control over women’s bodies and male insecurities about sexual performance, the most potent fear is impotency. Problem is not infertility, problem is male fantasy of control and treatment of women as appendages to their wombs and not full human beings.
The corporate greed theory is perhaps one of the more robust ones. Of course, corporations work on the profit principle, and yes, they are often in bed with governments. The history of damaging products from formula milk, to agricultural chemicals to plastics is a tale of corporate greed and governments shirking their responsibility. But it is a little known secret of bio-medical research that almost all of the basic research is done by publicly funded universities, including for the COVID vaccines. The inventors of Pfizer vaccine Drs. Ozlem Tureci, Ugur Sahin and Katalin Kariko are faculty members at the University Medical Centre Mainz and the University of Pennsylvania respectively. They all formed Bio-tech as a side venture backed by the university. Universities often have entrepreneurial entities that market their intellectual products. Oxford Astra Zeneca similarly is an outcome of publicly funded research. Pharmaceutical companies step in once the intellectual work is done and the process is of mass producing, packaging and marketing. The marketers are corporations but the science behind them is real and publicly funded.
The issue of lack of trust on vaccines is also a question of why should we believe you. Unlike many academics I do maintain that science can and should be questioned. I mostly trust science because I live among scientists and I know the depth of commitment, love and labour they bring to their enterprise for working, like me, for essentially food and clothing. Academic salaries being a bit of a joke when it comes to the proportionality between years of education and hard work it takes to become one. But equally those who don’t live and work with scientists, why should they believe them?
For those living at centres of knowledge and power where science is generated it is easy to buy into the truths told by science. For those at the peripheries of power socially and globally, the scientific truths are not as evident. The problem is with the scientific enterprise and its lack of capacity and perhaps even interest in communicating science and scientific method to the public and especially those at the peripheries of it. People are not stupid, we the scientists, are too sanctimonious. Our self certainty about truth telling is not obvious to those who we don’t bother to engage with. That has to change.
One research study after the other, within the hazards research field that I am associated with, has demonstrated that African American and Hispanic communities tend to lend less credence to disaster warnings in the United States, for example. The explanation really has to do with sense of marginalization, institutional racism and oppression. If the everyday experience of people with authority and the state is negative, in terms of police harassment of African Americans and/or Black British people then there will be a trust deficit with the state. The trust deficit is not going to disappear when it comes to pandemics and vaccines. Similarly, if the Muslim population’s experience of British society is that of marginalization and of their religious identity being treated as a cause for suspicion, then obviously they are unlikely to believe that a state normally out to demonize and exclude them has suddenly developed a love for them during a pandemic. The problem lies not with the ethnic populations, but with a society that systemically marginalizes and demonizes ethnic and religious minorities.
Ultimately, the media and social intercourse is a form of communion. It is through the media, politics and sociability that individuals gel into a community. Conspiracy theories are anti-political, because firstly they detract from the real conspiracies that are actually being perpetrated by the powerful, and secondly because they are symptomatic of intense emotional and spiritual loneliness of their votaries. People can be alone in a crowd or in a family. Just as environmental disasters, we know, are symptomatic of deeper problems within society, conspiracy theories too are a symptom of political alienation. Answer the question as to why millions are feeling alone, and you have the basis for a more inclusive, politicised and safe society.
Daanish Mustafa is a Professor of Critical Geography, Department of Geography, King’s College, London. His research interests include water resources, hazards and development geography. Email: [email protected]