Protesters attend a demonstration against the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) vaccine testing on Africans, at Wits University in Johannesburg. File picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
Protesters attend a demonstration against the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) vaccine testing on Africans, at Wits University in Johannesburg. File picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Conspiracy theories can have devastating impact on very real fight against Covid-19

By Opinion Time of article published Jan 13, 2021

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By Amil Umraw

From one person eating some rather questionable food at a Chinese wet market to toilet paper shelves standing as barren as the streets surrounding them – it is a surreal trajectory for a virus which masked the face of the world in a matter of months.

So surreal in fact that many people could not, and still cannot, fathom its inception or the effect that it has had on their lives, either directly or indirectly. It is perhaps for this reason that we try to find alternative explanations to rationalize the constant developments and diminutions around us.

While conspiracy theories are usually a negligible phenomenon, these clean-cut narratives which prey on pre-established suspicions have now become a formidable opponent to science and truth.

And with the aid of social media, misinformation can be neatly packaged into 240 characters or 30 seconds, and transmitted just as rapidly as the virus.

While the most harm that can come from indulging in some conspiracy theories – like those which surmise that the moon is a projection – is a few less invites to dinner parties, perpetuating radical and militant ideas in the age of the coronavirus can have devastating consequences.

In what was seemingly sparked by the conspiracy theory that 5G towers cause coronavirus, or that 5G weakens the immune system’s cellular defence making people more vulnerable to COVID-19, three telecommunications network infrastructure towers were burnt and destroyed within a matter of hours in KwaZulu-Natal last week.

The truth is that the electromagnetic spectrum is made up of ionizing and non-ionizing radiation – with prolonged and repeated exposure to the former known to damage DNA and lead to cancer (in the case of X-rays), and the latter causing no harm at all. 5G technology emits non-ionizing radiation, with its frequency lying between a common microwave and remote control.

Lightbulbs, unlike the ones that remain dim in the heads of those who believe this theory, are said to emit a higher frequency than 5G.

In addition, according to media reports, some Eastern Cape families have begun exhuming the corpses of relatives who died from coronavirus related illnesses, saying the plastic used to encase the coffin suffocates the spirit of the deceased.

The danger here is that the virus can remain infectious on different surfaces for varying amounts of time.

But most alarming is the growing tide of anti-vaccine sentiment among South Africa’s populace – at a time of increasing Covid-19 positivity rates and rising death tolls when a vaccine is most needed.

Rather than scrutiny and distrust, the speedy development and approval of vaccines for Covid-19 should be met with celebration: a feat only possible because scientists, industries and governments around the world collaborated in a manner that has never been achieved before.

Covid-19 vaccines go through a rigorous, multi-stage testing process, including large trials that involve tens of thousands of people. These trials, which include people at high risk for Covid-19, are specifically designed to identify any common side effects or other safety concerns.

Once a clinical trial shows that a Covid-19 vaccine is safe and effective, a series of independent reviews of the efficacy and safety evidence is required, including regulatory review and approval in the country where the vaccine is manufactured or distributed.

The ‘anti-vaxxer’ sentiment is a profound danger, and not only to our global fight against the spread of Covid-19. In 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) listed low childhood vaccination, largely the result of parents who refused to immunise their children, as one of the main risks that threaten the welfare of some countries.

The seriousness of the consequences of not being vaccinated from preventable ailments has rung alarm bells, with calculations showing that vaccines prevent between 2 and 3 million deaths per year and have the potential to save around 1.5 million more lives, if the global level of cover were raised.

This is over and above the lives we will save from Covid-19.

Conspiracy theories and myths around Covid-19 do not develop in dark corners; they are carefully cultivated and distributed, sometimes by prominent figures in society (even presidents who won’t leave office). We will all at some point come across one conspiracy theory or another, but it remains our individual duty to fact-check, research and understand these topics before making a conscious decision to spread them any further.

* Amil Umraw is a freelance journalist.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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