Why epidemics have always caused conspiracy theories

Why epidemics have always caused conspiracy theories as past pandemics have ravaged humanity

  • The 1918 flu epidemic killed between 50 million and 100 million individuals 
  • By these appalling standards, Covid-19 has been less of a human disaster 
  • Author Brian Michael Jenkins looks at how people in past explained the horrors  

HISTORY

PLAGUES AND THEIR AFTERMATH 

by Brian Michael Jenkins (Melville House £10.99, 240pp) 

‘Because diseases have been the biggest killers of people,’ the American author Jared Diamond once wrote, ‘they have been decisive shapers of history.’ Past pandemics have ravaged humanity.

The Justinian Plague of the 540s, named after the Byzantine emperor of the time, may have killed half the population of Europe. The Black Death, hundreds of years later, saw perhaps a quarter of the world’s people die.

The 1918 flu epidemic killed between 50 million and 100 million individuals. By these appalling standards, Covid-19 has been less of a human disaster.

It’s difficult to estimate the numbers of dead. The present pandemic is still with us. Some estimates of excess deaths resulting from it run to more than 18 million. Life expectancy in the U.S. decreased by nearly two years in 2020.

How will the world be changed by Covid-19? It’s safe enough to say, as Brian Michael Jenkins does in this alarming, but illuminating book, that ‘the normality we knew before will not return’. But what will replace it?

How will the world be changed by Covid-19? It’s safe enough to say, as Brian Michael Jenkins does in this alarming, but illuminating book, that ‘the normality we knew before will not return’ (File image)

One way to make guesses about the future is to look back at what happened in the past. That is what Jenkins does as he charts the effects of historic epidemics in order to understand our own.

They are not just to be measured in terms of mortality. Secondary effects can include anything from ‘social disruption’ to ‘public hysteria’ and the ‘spread of rumours and conspiracy theories’. We’re seeing all of these today. Some of the immediate economic consequences of the pandemic were also obvious enough. It brought about ‘the deepest global recession since WWII’, more than twice as deep as the one caused by the financial crisis of 2007-9.

Jenkins is interested in how people in the past explained the horrors that epidemic disease inflicted on them. One not very successful strategy was to deny its existence. In 1900, faced with an outbreak of plague in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the governor of California worried it would be bad for business.

He issued a proclamation, stating that there was no plague in ‘the great and healthful city of San Francisco’. Some of his colleagues in the state legislature were all for hanging the health official responsible for identifying the outbreak.

Over the centuries, Christians have been all too ready to point the finger at Jews when epidemics have struck. During the Black Death in the 14th century, thousands of Jewish people were massacred, accused of poisoning wells. Many were burned alive as local officials looked on in approval.

As Jenkins bluntly states, ‘Conspiracy theories flourish during epidemics.’

The recent pandemic, of course, has seen more than its fair share of what Jenkins, at one point, euphemistically calls ‘differing interpretations of reality’.

As he drily remarks, once adopted, they ‘can prove impervious to contrary fact’. Theories that contact tracing to control the spread of the virus was actually a plot by the Government to spy on citizens have been propagated, often by anti-Western news sources.

Wealthy individuals such as Bill Gates have been accused of bizarre plans to implant us all with microchips via our vaccine jabs.

Individuals have been kicking up a stink about vaccination since it was first used in the West in the 18th century.

Founding father of the U.S., Benjamin Franklin, may have been one of the first enthusiasts for inoculation against smallpox but plenty of his fellow Americans thought it the work of the devil.

The recent pandemic, of course, has seen more than its fair share of what Jenkins, at one point, euphemistically calls ‘differing interpretations of reality’ (File image)

In Britain, mandatory vaccination of infants against smallpox was introduced in 1853. Riots ensued and the Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League was founded in London in the following decade.

Today’s anti-vaxxers have their forerunners. Jenkins acknowledges how difficult it is to use the history of past pandemics to predict what the post-Covid-19 world will look like.

Everything is ‘necessarily speculative’. Historians are still debating the consequences of the Black Death and that was nearly seven centuries ago.

His conclusions are not particularly comforting. Post-pandemic society will inevitably be ‘a more turbulent and unpredictable place’.

However, he holds out some hope in this intelligent, insightful book. The pandemic has reminded us how dangerous the world can be.

‘We are in it together,’ Jenkins concludes, ‘survival requires a collaborative effort.’

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