Pandemics and conspiracy theories: what can we learn?
Posted On May 18, 2020
Article by Laura Morazzini | Illustration by Francesco Moretti
-”See here? It says it’s a virus created by China in a lab” – ”It’s rather Northern upheavals’ fault”.
‘’In times of social stress in general, and in the throes of a devastating epidemic in particular, conspiratorial explanations of events have found fertile ground irrespective of culture, race or historical epoch’’
(Pule Phoofolo, 1993)
At the very start of the pandemic, videos of Italians singing patriotic songs from their balconies made the headlines all around the world. The national structure, in many countries, modified itself in order to embrace the first true national aim since the end of World War II: the survival of the system.
It is in this revolutionary momentum that, in our hearts and minds, a concrete burning faith in Unity appeared. This led to the question of whether the post-covid scenario will be one in which domestic tensions will be finally solved or, on the contrary, cemented.
In this sense, the analysis of the European response to cholera in the XIX century is particularly illuminating.
In this article, I will summarize Robert Evans’ findings about the cholera pandemic published on the Oxford University Press in 1993 and I will compare it with the role that conspiracy theories are currently playing in Italy, the first European country hit by the virus.
When it comes to narratives revolving around ”the government vs. the people”, are conspiracy theories a phenomenon that should interest just psychologists and sociologists or do they tell something interesting to political scientists as well?
Cholera in XIX century’s Europe in Richard Evans’ analysis
Even if Richard Evans excluded a possible causal link between epidemics and upheavals, what clearly emerges is that the pandemic facilitated the creation of a coherent series of conspiracy theories.
These narratives drew an incredibly accurate picture of the social cleavages present in the old continent. While reliable data about the social distribution of deaths aren’t available, as Evans stated, ‘’the proximity to infected waters was socially determined […] sailors, boatmen, fishermen and quayside workers were among the worst-affected’’.
The popular belief had it that the disease was not new, and had been intentionally spread by upper classes with the only objective of killing the poor ones in order to alleviate the burden of their subsistence from the national wallet.
The inevitable creation of sanitary cordons and the imposition of quarantines, disrupted the flow of goods, damaged livelihoods and gave new strength to popular distrust.
While before the creation of the national state, popular passions were unleashed towards outcasts, in XIX century they were directed towards the local authorities, whose members indeed belonged to the upper classes.
Anything familiar so far?
Behind conspiracy theories
Unlike the Black Death, cholera appeared in Europe after the formation of the national state and unlike the Spanish flue it was anticipated and followed by waves of social unrest, which weren’t dragged into the popular sentiments by external agents like political parties, but were instead embedded in the grievances inherited by the feudal system (Evans, 1993).
In other words, it clearly showed the buried tensions of XIX century’s Europe.
The new regulations and controls implemented became part of a process of victimization by the population that adapted new grievances to old ones. Nevertheless, it is important to wonder what we can learn from them, since they mirrored the frustrations and sentiments of the revolts raging in Europe through the century.
In fact, conspiracy theories help us understand the level of popular dissatisfaction and its orientation. They can be described as reassuring narratives. New events are manipulated to confirm previous beliefs and to conform them to current expectations. But that is exactly why they are so interesting.
It’s a distorted, but nevertheless, useful mirror of the grievances rooted in our societies.
A survey conducted by BVA Doxa shows that 1 out of 4 Italians believes that the virus has been intentionally created by external agents. A ratio surpassed just by France. As a matter of fact, in Italy, we are witnessing an increasing number of exhortations to civil disobedience based on conspiracy theories.
A few weeks ago, I received a message on Telegram by the group Attiviamoci Tutti that invited me on April 25, Italy’s Liberation Day, to take to the streets and fight for my own freedom against a government that had allegedly ‘’already defeated’’ the virus and is taking advantage of the situation to build a dictatorship while planning ”the biggest experiment of psychological terrorism on a global scale”.
My parents, friends and family members have constantly been receiving similar messages during the pandemic.
Nonetheless, other signals are more concerning.
Matteo Ricci is the mayor of the quiet city of Pesaro and Index Research repeatedly found him to be one of the most beloved mayors in Italy. Nonetheless, on April 23, Ricci received in his home a threatening letter: ‘’I know where you live’’. In the middle of the page, the image of a revolver.
Hatred has also been shown for the liberation of Silvia Romano, an Italian NGO worker who has been kidnapped in Kenya 15 months ago by the jihadist group al-Shabaab. After her conversion to Islam and the rumours about the ransom paid by the government, the institutions and Silvia herself became the new target of popular resentment.
One conspiracy theory has it that the money used for her release have been directly stolen by the government from the layoff fund of ‘’the honest people’’. This narrative is part of an old rhetoric that sees the government as more inclined to help Islamist terrorism rather than ”his own people”.
The past and the future
At their very core, none of these narratives is new.
After more than two centuries we see the same dynamics at play.
Even though now, in Italy, in the middle of the emergency, the trust in institutions, authorities and the national health service are among the highest in Europe, it is legitimate to wonder what these conspiracy theories signal for the aftermath of the crisis.
The restrictive measures in XIX century that originated the narratives mentioned above, lasted for years. Nevertheless, it took us one month to start questioning the legitimacy of all Italian institutions.
According to another survey by the same agency, 70% of Italians have been exposed to fake news. What will be the delayed effect when the emergency will subside?
The statements of the opposition – from both the center-right and center-left– are already mirroring the ”dictatorship-narrative”, which is likely to be used as their strong point in the next elections.
While it is difficult to state which role the cholera pandemic played in the social unrest that followed, the conspiracy theories that originated, certainly provide interesting information on how resilient was people’s distrust towards political institutions.
The thesis of the author of this article is that pandemics, acting like catalysts in the generation of conspiracy theories about ”the government vs. the people”, can provide important signals about the robustness of the relationship between citizens and political institutions.
As a consequence, while every country will experience some kind of narratives, I expect some differences to emerge. For example, in some countries, they might reflect more a distrust against a minority or against foreign powers.
Cholera neither reinforced authorities’ legitimacy, nor brought unity among the population. According to Evans, it didn’t even lead to effective sanitary reforms.
In Italy, if political parties will exploit the narratives mentioned above to make the government fall – again- and the desperate request for a reliable and coherent management of the country – hidden behind the most absurd conspiracy theories – will be ignored, then another chance for Unity will be lost.