Health Opinion

Conspiracy theories continue to spread during COVID-19

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There has been a flood of conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and vaccination (Image by E. Unuabona | Unsplash)

During this pandemic, anti-vaccination has been the subject of conspiracy theories that are multiplying worldwide, writes Bilal Cleland.

WHEN I WAS at Hamilton Primary School in the 1950s, we all wore camphor bags around our necks. The smell of camphor was widely believed at the time to ward off the threat of infection from polio, the horror disease of the time.  

In Grade Five our novel for English was I Can Jump Puddles, written by Alan Marshall who had polio. It had a deep impact.

It is estimated that up to 40,000 Australians developed paralytic polio between 1930 and 1988.

Camphor bags were an attempted remedy that had also been adopted in the 1918 influenza pandemic to open up the breathing passages as a deterrent to infection. It was mythical but was thought to be possible protection against the scourge of polio in the 1940s and 1950s.

It possibly came from the days of the plague, when it was then assumed that infection came via inhaled noxious vapours — the miasmatic theory of disease. Something with a strong smell could counter the infection.

The polio vaccine

Hope that polio could be prevented appeared in Australia in 1954 when it was reported that a new vaccine was being tested on people for the first time. Trials went underway in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide, of the new "Salk" polio vaccine, with tests apparently “proceeding satisfactorily”.

The vaccine was eventually proven to be effective and in 1956 the Australian Government launched a mass immunisation program for the prevention of poliomyelitis. All school children and pre-school children were immunised as part of the campaign.

A major campaign was launched against the vaccine, intensified by the Cutter Incident where people in the U.S. were left damaged by the polio vaccine, but the effectiveness of the vaccine quickly became apparent.

Experienced medical researcher Dr Peter Salk (son of polio vaccine originator Dr Jonas Salk) gave an interview to The Atlantic in 2014 to counter the spread of anti-vaccination conspiracy theories.

Said Dr Peter Salk:

The reality is that back in 1954, there was a huge double-blind study involving 1.8 million schoolchildren. The results were clear-cut: If you got the polio vaccine, you were protected; if you didn’t, you were not. When you have that kind of data, you just can’t say that the disappearance of polio is due to other things. What strikes me is — I don’t know quite how to put this, but it’s like there’s an epidemic of misinformation and we’ve got to inoculate the public against it. 

Smallpox the mass killer

Smallpox, which was estimated to kill some 400,000 Europeans annually, was combatted in the late 1700s by Edward Jenner’s cowpox vaccine. Although it was effective many were afraid of it.

Professor of Pediatric Infectious Diseases University of Sydney David Isaacs relates the example of English caricaturist James Gillray who famously depicted cows emerging from the bodies of terrified people being given the vaccine.

Some clergy proclaimed the notion of vaccination to be unchristian, as it came from an animal. Others claimed that the disease came from decaying matter, from miasma, so could not be related to vaccination. Others maintained that vaccination was a violation of their liberty.

The 'Vaccination Act 1853ordered mandatory vaccination for infants up to three months old. The 'Vaccination Act,1867' extended this age requirement to 14 years, resulting in major resistance from the public.

More than 80,000 anti-vaccinators made up the Leicester Demonstration in March of 1885, one of the most notorious of public demonstrations. Jenner was lampooned and a child’s coffin was carried to illustrate the terrible dangers of vaccination. When there was a smallpox outbreak in the USA in the late 1800s, vaccination campaigns by the government of the day were met with resistance. American anti-vaccinationists waged court battles to repeal vaccination laws in several states. 

Of course, like polio, smallpox vaccination has practically eliminated the disease. Smallpox has not been known to occur since the 1970s and while polio is still endemic in three countries – Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan – it has been basically eradicated from the rest of the world.

COVID-19 conspiracy

There has been a flood of conspiracy theories and false news about COVID-19, spread on social media and by unscrupulous media outlets. This area has now become an area of academic study due to its prevalence in the USA.

One of the most widely accepted interpretations of conspiracy theory is that it reflects an explanatory belief about a group of people who collude in secret to attain malicious goals.

While conspiracy theories are not the preserve of the ideological Left or Right, they are more common at ideological extremes and certainly strongest at the extreme Right.

The social identity approach (SIA) is one of the tools used in the study to understand conspiracy theories. The main assumption of SIA is that each person not only has a distinct personal identity but also social identities that connect them to other people. Intense political partisanship can create the "us versus them" mindset which facilitates the spread of conspiracy theories.

Periods of crisis also stimulate the rise of such theories, combined with feelings of powerlessness or alienation from the mainstream of community life. Thus belief in such theories is particularly high in members of stigmatised minority groups.

According to the December 2018 European Journal of Social Psychology:

'Also "underground" extremist movements (for example, groups of Neo‐Nazis, violent anti‐globalists, religious fundamentalists and the like) are characterised by excessive conspiracy beliefs. Conspiracy theories causally contribute to the process of radicalisation and the violent tendencies of such extremist fringe groups.'  

Senior Researcher Political Science Department Stony Brook University Joseph A Vitriol finds that changes to existing social and political arrangements can be very threatening to those who have benefited from the old system.

Joseph says:

'We found that when one feels that society's fundamental, defining values are under siege, it is a strong predictor of a general tendency toward conspiracy thinking and endorsement of both ideological and non-ideological conspiracy theories.'

Many people who feel threatened by change, who feel that their position – ideological or social – is under threat, seek solace in the illusion of conspiracy theories.

Bilal Cleland is a retired secondary teacher and was Secretary of the Islamic Council of Victoria, Chairman of the Muslim Welfare Board Victoria and Secretary of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils. You can follow Bilal on Twitter @BilalCleland.

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