Nov 10, 2020

Here's why disease outbreaks create perfect conditions for the rise of conspiracy theories

This cartoon, titled Death's Dispensary, is a caricature published during the London cholera epidemic of 1866. (George J. Pinwell/Public domain)
Prior outbreaks have been a breeding ground for more than just germs

Ainsley Hawthorn
November 8, 2020

Sometime in the last eight months, you've probably come across at least one COVID conspiracy theory.

They range from the almost-plausible, like the rumour that the novel coronavirus is a leaked biological weapon, to the beyond-ludicrous, like the idea that the pandemic is a cover-up for a worldwide Satanic child sex trafficking ring.

Conspiracy theories credit world events to secretive groups with sinister motivations. Genuine conspiracies do crop up occasionally – Russian operatives, for instance, really did conspire to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The term "conspiracy theory," though, is reserved for those conjectures that aren't supported by evidence.

It's not surprising that the COVID-19 pandemic would provide fertile ground for conspiracy theories to take root. Conspiracy theories tend to gain traction in crisis situations when daily life is disrupted and people lose their sense of control.

Disease epidemics, in particular, create perfect conditions for the rise of conspiracist thinking. People feel anxious over their health, powerless to protect their loved ones and uncertain about the future. To reassure themselves, they cast about for any explanation that will make sense of what's happening.

Even before COVID, some experts believed we were living in a golden age of conspiracy theories. Fringe ideas are disseminated more easily than ever via the internet, and, for the first time in recent memory, some political leaders are even publically endorsing them.

Pandemics were producing conspiracy theories, though, long before the invention of the internet and the strategic use of "fake news" to manipulate voters.

The cholera riots

Whispers of conspiracies were rampant during the cholera pandemics of the 19th century, and they provoked an extreme response: the cholera riots.

The first global cholera pandemic began in the Bengal region of India in 1817 and spread from there to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, East Africa, and, finally, Europe.

Once the disease gained a global foothold, it reared its head again and again. Over the course of the 19th century, there were five separate cholera pandemics that killed tens of millions of people.

These pandemics led to civil unrest across Europe, igniting riots in Ireland, Scotland, England, Italy, France, Prussia, and Russia. These uprisings were all based on a common belief: that cholera was being intentionally spread by the upper classes to kill the poor.

Cholera is a nasty illness. It's caused by bacteria that attack the small intestine, leading to diarrhea so severe that a person can die of dehydration just hours after symptoms begin.

The only way cholera can spread is through food or water that's been contaminated with infected feces. As a result, cholera disproportionately affects people who don't have access to adequate sanitation – in other words, people who are lower class or living in poverty.

Rumours start flying

Seeing their friends and families felled by the disease while the rich went relatively unscathed, Europe's lower classes began to suspect that they were being targeted. Since people became sick shortly after eating or drinking, the illness looked a lot like poisoning. This set off rumours that food and water supplies were being intentionally tainted.

These factors generated a conspiracy theory that the rich were using some new poison to exterminate the poor, and members of the lower classes rioted, attacking doctors and police officers and destroying government buildings.

What's perhaps most intriguing about the cholera riots is that they took place in countries across Europe and there's no evidence that protestors in these widely dispersed locations were communicating with each other.

Instead, communities throughout the region seem to have latched on to the same conspiracy theory independently of one another, due to the incendiary combination of widespread economic inequality and the specific features of cholera transmission.

LISTEN: Ainsley Hawthorn and Andrew Hawthorn talk about old-school "fake news" with the latest instalment of their segment Apocalypse Then:

Are all these conspiracy theories going around nowadays a symptom of the pandemic? Ainsley and Andrew Hawthorn see what they can come up with on this week's Apocalypse Then. 6:27

Harsh measures intended to quell the riots, like strict quarantines and military repression, made them worse. The unrest ended only in places where severe regulations were replaced with social support. For instance, after Berlin started organizing soup kitchens for the unemployed and caring for the orphans of cholera victims, the uprisings stopped.

Lessons we can learn

What can the cholera riots teach us about the conspiracy theories that are running wild today?

Human beings have a fundamental need for predictability, and a pandemic takes robs us of that. A conspiracy that blames a disease outbreak on the intentional actions of human beings gives us a target for our angst, it makes us feel like we can affect the situation by going after the conspirators, and it reassures us that disasters aren't random, that bad things happen for a reason.

The drawback, though, is that while we're distracted by conspiracy theories, we may not be doing the things that really could make us and our communities safer.

The cholera riots occurred because not only were people suffering, it was obvious that some of them were suffering more than others. When governments and policy-makers recognized that injustice and started providing supports to the people who most needed them, the riots ended.

The takeaway is that conspiracist thinking isn't always a problem of individual judgment. People generally become believers because they feel insecure.

Communities need to understand the root causes of people's fears and to ensure their basic needs are met if we want to prevent people from latching onto conspiracy theories that provide comfort at the expense of common sense.

Ainsley Hawthorn, PhD, is a cultural historian and author who lives in St. John’s.

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