Earlier this week, I went for a run with a dear friend of more than 30 years. It was special. He’s a better runner than me by magnitudes, but he slowed down to my hobbling pace for a nice 6 mile run in a beautiful state park as we discussed life After COVID-19 (AC). We’re both introverts, so we mused that life AC hasn’t changed too terribly much for either of us personally. We had a thoughtful discussion about our direct experiences thus far. He is a paramedic, so to say that he’s on the front line of this thing is an understatement. I work in corporate America with access to some very good economic reporting, so I was able to bring that perspective. It wasn’t long into our run before our attention turned to some of the conspiracy theories about the virus.
“They’re saying that this thing was developed in a Chinese lab and was released just in time for the US election.” “I also heard Bill Gates had the patent on the vaccine.” “Oh, and let’s make sure we talk about the chemical trails, the 5G Network, and how wearing a mask is a form of government control.” We chuckled them off. Not because we have direct knowledge that they are false or that it wouldn’t be more dramatic to believe that there is something bigger going on. Rather, our experiences and our education have taught us to see the world through Occam’s Razor. Boiled down into my own terms, Occam’s Razor is the axiom that in the absence of direct knowledge, the least complicated explanation is generally the best. Applying Occam’s Razor means that this COVID-19 is a natural occurring phenomenon and our best way to deal with it is to follow expert advice on social distancing and wearing masks until we can sort out a vaccine. I know… Boring. The best things in life usually are.
Unfortunately, I haven’t experienced the same thoughtful dialogue or boring conclusion from other loved ones. I see old friends or family sharing conspiracy videos and taking a very real stance on calling COVID-19 a hoax designed to further enrich the ultra-wealthy or influence the US election. Wearing a mask has become a question of personal freedom. Protest signs reading, “My body, my choice. End the lock-down now” pock mark the lawns of US state capitals. This thing seems to have tipped into a special kind of lunacy where people are risking their own lives or the lives of their loved ones to prove a political point. But why?
Looking Back at Historical Health Calamities
For clues, I looked back at the bubonic plague. The plague killed roughly one third of medieval Europe’s population. Until it was well understood that it was being spread by fleas from rats to humans, the plague was a similar invisible enemy. Thanks to reasonably good record-keeping from the era, we know that society reacted in all sorts of kooky ways. The following excerpt offers up just a few of the popular preventive measures for the plague.
Fires were a popular method of warding off miasmas [corrupted airs believed to cause the plague]. They were burned at street corners; even the pope sat between two large fires. People were urged to burn aromatic woods, but other scents would do as well, including rosemary, amber, musk and fragrant flowers. When they walked, people took their scents with them, carrying packets of herbs. Some plague-proofed their homes by putting glazes over the southern windows to block the polluted southern wind. People were advised not to eat meat or figs and to avoid activities that would open the pores to a miasma, including bathing, exercising and physical intimacy. Stranger recommendations circulated as well, including not sleeping during the daytime and avoiding sad thoughts about death and disease.excerpt from How The Black Death Worked by Molly Edmonds
OK, you might be thinking. Avoiding eating figs or not taking a bath are very personal decisions. They’re not conspiratorial – unless maybe you’re a medieval fig farmer or a soap manufacturer. Rest assured dear reader, that medieval Europe was not safe from conspiracy theories either.
In the 14th century, when the plague ravaged Europe, nobody knew how the illness had originated. Soon after, unfounded rumors surfaced that Jews caused the outbreak by poisoning wells in a bid to control the world. Jewish people were accused of being behind the plague — and were subjected to deadly pogroms and forcefully displaced.excerpt from Coronavirus and the plague: The disease of viral conspiracy theories by Christopher Nehring
The same is true for the more recent Spanish Flu, which Nehring writes was believed to be developed by Germans as a weapon after WWI.
I find it both fascinating and frustrating that our human response to calamity is – for some – to assume others have set it in motion. When we should be pulling together to solve a common problem, some portion of us dream up dark schemes assigned to others and posit them as truths, which catch on and cost even more lives. What drives this abhorrent behavior? Perhaps an inward view will offer more clues.
I recall back to my younger days when I was more willing and even eager to buy into conspiracies. The difference between the younger me and the current model is a question of power. 20 years ago, I worked in small factories for a low salary and I had no say in how my company, my neighborhood, my favorite sports teams – anything – ran. I also had a lot more time to sit and stew about not having any power. On the lower rungs of the societal pecking order, it was tempting to think that the cards were stacked against me. Or even better, there are puppet masters pillaging the world for their personal gain and keeping it all to themselves. Now I had, if not an individual person, a group of people that I could direct my dissatisfaction for my lowly station. The man was holding me down.
The Truth is Usually Quite Boring
As I have gotten older, become better educated and furthered my career, I’ve begun to get access to power. Not real power like the 1% or the 0.1%, but some marginal levels of financial stability and the ability to have some influence in my various organizations. I’m learning the downright boring machinations of how the organizations work. I see clearly that I was never being held down. What was holding me down was my own ideology borne out of my dissatisfaction with the current state of my life. I wanted more. More stuff, more money, more importance, more say in how things went. In short, I wanted more power. Because I didn’t perceive that I had enough power, I looked for dramatic and sinister stories about the world around me to keep pushing the dopamine button. The man was holding me down. He was. His name was Troy.
Perhaps it isn’t fair of me to project my youthful feelings of powerlessness onto others. Perhaps they have firsthand knowledge that brings real credibility to these alternative positions. But generally speaking, the conspiratorial arguments fall apart quickly. When asked for more proof than some slick social media video or report from a alternative news source, there isn’t anything other than a fervent willingness to believe in the malicious motivations of others.
What to Do About Those We Love
Now that I have written this post, I find hope in navigating this tricky space. I was once a brooding soul weary of the man holding me down. Now that I’ve come through that portion of my life, I hold on to hope that my loved ones will too. If I’m honest, I have not reacted well. I’ve become frustrated and harbored sharp-witted thoughts in response to the conspiracy purveyors in my circle of loved ones. But sarcasm and sharp wit aren’t the answer. It only leads to entrenchment because there’s always a counter-argument. I think the best thing to do is focus on safety. As long as a loved one is taking care of themselves, let them believe and post and share what they want. Perhaps it will run its course. On the other hand if our loved ones are not being safe, we must speak up. We must encourage them to follow clearly documented health guidelines. Then we will have done what we can.
Wishing you well in these challenging times.