Times of heightened stress and anxiety are, we are told, breeding grounds for rumours, fantasies and conspiracy theories. In my time at different universities I had to deal at examination time with groups of students manifesting a range of different examples of this, from anxiety about a ghost stalking the corridors of a student residence, to students convinced, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that there was a serial rapist on campus. Entirely justified anxieties about the Covid-19 pandemic have, predictably enough, bred their own conspiracy theories. The most notable of these is the absurd notion that the disease was deliberately engineered in China and is not being propagated by a virus but via the signals from 5G masts. Fed and watered on social media, recently given credence by Eamon Holmes on ITV, the moral panic fostered by this conspiracy theory has led to assaults on telecommunication workers and damage to masts.
I heard the 5G theory rightly being dismissed as “incredibly stupid” by two scientists on Radio 4 this morning, with a bluntness that I have not as yet heard being applied by our over-deferential media to our prime minister’s demonstration of anti-Covid-19 leadership via the shaking of victims’ hands. But one of the most insidious features of conspiracy theories is that the more they are debunked by people who know what they are talking about, the easier it becomes for the people who don’t know what they are talking about to say “well, they would say that wouldn’t they”, and thereby co-opt the debunking as evidence of the truth of the conspiracy theory. The more “establishment” the officials denying the conspiracy are seen to be, the more oxygen, to use a currently pertinent cliché, the theory gets.
It would be easy enough for anyone with nothing better to do under lockdown to make a few dodgy connections and overstretched deductions and come up with a conspiracy theory to float on social media. So, for example, what happened to that vaguely genocidal idea of ‘herd immunity’ floated by scientific experts early in the pandemic and allegedly favoured by Svengali Cummings? What, for that matter, has happened to Cummings, last seen (as far as we know) running away from Downing Street accompanied by his backpack? ‘Herd immunity’, involving allowing 60% people to develop immunity by contracting the virus, was apparently dismissed as unacceptable to the public. It would have seen swathes of elderly and vulnerable people no longer being a burden to an economy that will take a very long time to recover, even with a boost like that. So, the conspiracy theory would go, how do we know Svengali isn’t locked away somewhere cunningly orchestrating the same outcome for the elderly? Why aren’t the statistics of deaths of elderly people in our care homes, in particular, and the community more generally being collected and published in the same way as the hospital statistics? Why, allegedly, are death certificates not accurately reflecting the Covid-19 effect? Why are the carers in care-homes not being supplied with adequate personal protective equipment? Is it surprising that so many elderly people are dying?
The questions are mostly, individually, legitimate questions. Link them together like that and you have the makings of a conspiracy theory that might well, if it were to be put out on Facebook, gain significant traction. And the more it was denied by those in a position to engineer the allegedly sought-after outcome, the more truth it would perversely be credited with. As my novel Despite the Darkness explores in some depth, you can’t prove a negative. But such a corralling of disparate factors into a coherent conspiracy theory would, of course, be nonsense, even as it makes a perverse kind of sense. Apart from anything else, it would demand a level of co-ordination, competence and organizational ability that is, all too obviously, lamentably lacking in our present government. But it would still be interesting to know what Cummings is doing these days.