Being aware of your biases doesn’t make you immune to them. “You are the easiest person to fool”, as Richard Feynman once said.
Over the past few years, I’ve developed an interest in conspiracies. Most of them are nonsense, but I find their existence, and the people who create and propagate them, fascinating.
It was with that in mind that I tried to be rational when I found myself believing in two non-mainstream COVID-related theories. The conspiracist angle is so alluring. You feel you’ve uncovered a dark secret, one others aren’t aware enough or smart enough to recognise. You’re Bob Woodward discovering the president’s dark secrets, Morpheus opening eyes, Locke finding the hatch. Was I buying into these ideas because they made sense, or because they’re simply more interesting than the alternative?
Here are the two theories in question:
1) ‘Masks don’t work’ was an internationally-organised misinformation campaign
2) COVID may have originated in a lab
Let’s dig in.
Wearing a mask to prevent transmission/avoid infection is now mostly accepted. But, in the early days of lockdown, the messaging was quite different.
‘Masks don’t work. Leave them for the healthcare workers’. What logical sense does that make? Their use and mine would clearly differ, but how could the line be so distinct? How could a mask protect an NHS nurse examining a patient, but not me, flanked by passengers on a rush-hour train?
‘You won’t wear it properly’. We were fed the idea that coronavirus would get on my mask, then onto my fingers as I adjusted or removed it, then I’d put those manky digits all over my beautiful face. So what would happen if I didn’t wear one? Somehow COVID would just fly right past and leave me unscathed?
‘Wash your hands instead?’ Why couldn’t I do that and wear a mask? When we were told that we didn’t wash our hands properly, there was a huge public awareness campaign to show us the right method. So why couldn’t we have that for masks? Surely the right way to wear them isn’t so complicated that we couldn’t have a short, government-approved Youtube video showing us the correct method? It could even star Dec Donnelly or Matt Baker so we knew it was trustworthy.
‘A mask will give you a false sense of security’. Maybe some people would feel like Batman after putting on a mask and head out into coronavirus-filled areas to defeat it. For the sane majority, our behaviour either wouldn’t change at all or even improve. Covering your face is a useful reminder that you’re living in the middle of a fucking pandemic. Most would respond accordingly.
Now, the explanation for all this could be as simple as the data changed as the virus spread. I think it was all bullshit, created to stop us buying masks so they could be kept for healthcare workers. And, given that the messaging was so similar across Europe and elsewhere, it looks like a coordinated international campaign. I get the reasoning, trying to look after NHS staff makes complete sense. Yet I disagree with the approach, for three main reasons:
a) It didn’t work. There was a huge run on masks anyway
b) Lying is immoral. Is that a childish response? Probably. Do politicians lie to us all the time? Maybe. It’s still wrong.
c) It erodes trust. America already has a big problem with getting the public to trust experts and the media. Anti-vaxxers don’t trust scientists. Many Trump supporters claim as Fake any negative news about him. Some media organisations deserve at least some of the criticism sent their way. Lying only strengthens that distrust. If there ever is a vaccine for COVID, enjoy getting mass vaccinations organised when a quarter of Americans refuse to take it. And whatever happens in American eventually arrives here in some form or another.
(One problem with being such a slow writer is that, between me drafting this post and finishing it, Dr. Fauci copped to lying about this very thing. This story got surprisingly little media attention. The BBC website makes no mention of it. Which makes me reluctantly include them as part of the problem).
It’s important to clarify what I’m not saying here. I don’t think COVID is a genetically-engineered bioweapon, and I’m not saying this definitely happened. I have no scientific background whatsoever, but most of the following points are just based on logic. There are simply too many arrows pointing towards a leak to ignore this as at least a strong possibility.
Imagine, in the city you live in, that there are two labs which specialise in, say, Ebola research. One is considered among the finest in the world. If there’s an Ebola outbreak nearby, the initial explanation of its origin falls apart, and you’re given no alternative explanation, wouldn’t you be suspicious of its origin? Wuhan’s Institute of Virology and its CDCP were both heavily involved in coronavirus research.
The COVID-infected bats we’ve been told about lived 1,200 miles away from Wuhan. Perhaps they made their way there? In one respect they definitely did, as they were brought to Wuhan to be studied.
Lab-leaks happen. SARS-1 got out at least four times, including twice in China. US officials were concerned about the WIV’s safety protocols in 2018. The unusual furin site. China’s CCP has a reputation for secrecy. But still, it’s suspicious that they are covering up so much, destroying samples, clamping down on information. When Australia called for a WHO investigation (now underway) into the virus’ origin, they were threatened by China. Because of the bad optics? Or something else. Why is the WIV behaving in such an unscientific fashion? Why did it close for over two weeks in October?
None of these points represent a smoking gun. But, in combination, and given the lack of evidence for another explanation, this is a theory that deserves to be treated seriously, not waved off as conspiracy nonsense.
(Here’s a great podcast on the topic)