It’s hard to keep up with the latest COVID conspiracies but here’s my best shot. Apparently, China is waging a global war on the elderly and infirm by releasing a deadly bat virus via mobile phone towers. Or else the virus has been created by philanthropist Bill Gates who wants to jab everyone in the world with a tracking device. Either that or it’s just a normal flu, and we are all sheep for allowing communism/fascism to be set upon us. Confusingly, some people are aggressively pushing all three scenarios simultaneously.

While most of these ideas are brain-freezingly illogical or easily debunked their supporters appear to be growing and they are deadly serious. Serious enough to drink bleach on the advice of alternative healers or bash Asians. Serious enough to spit on check out chicks, tell exhausted nurses to “go back to China,” set 5G towers on fire, and send death threats to alleged villains. Serious enough to trivialise or dismiss a global death count of over 300,000 and rising.   

Thankfully, these are still largely fringe ideas in Australia where an in-built bullshit detector is still part of the national psyche, but over in America they run wild. Objective truth and verifiable facts are disappearing fast in Trump’s post-truth world. Peak bonkers appears to have been reached in April when the President suggested injecting bleach might be a goer. “Yes, bleach will kill the virus… it will also kill you,” killjoys from Western Medicine were quick to clarify.

Concerned the world might be losing its collective shit I started poking around alternative news sites, looking into COVID theories and researching the history and psychology of conspiracy thinking more generally.

First discovery: something really is going on that we aren’t being told. But then there is much about Covid-19 that even leading viral experts simply don’t know. Will there be a second or third wave? Is it seasonally affected? Will a safe vaccine be found, will it even work? Can you be reinfected? World leaders are also driving with their fog lights on, making critical decisions based on limited intel and a constantly evolving situation. Like in war.

Whenever there is a perception that information is being withheld or controlled, conspiracies flourish. So, it's normal to expect an uptick now when millions are anxious, frustrated, scared, and isolated. Add notoriously corrupt key players like China and the pharmaceutical industry and you have the perfect soil to grow a potent strain of paranoia.

It’s happened before. During the last major pandemic of 1918 conspirators argued, among other things, that radio waves, the new technology of the day, were the problem. People trusted the medical advice initially – isolate, wear masks – but eventually got over it, relaxed measures, won back personal freedoms, and were smashed by a much deadlier second wave of infections. Somewhere between 20-50 million people died.

Turns out, radio waves weren’t the problem.

Turns out there are always counter experts eager to dismiss the orthodox view. They are always certain, often angry, and nearly always wrong. Alternative news is awash with misinformation, lies, and slanted truths pushed by both sides of politics and everyone from the Christian right to the anti-vaxxer crowd. There is no fact-checking or attempt at balance – its spin and propaganda not news. Investigative journalists, in comparison, make far less outrageous claims because they are obliged to work in the real world and can be sacked or sued for getting it wrong.

And then there are the odds. Embrace a conspiracy theory and you are backing a horse that hasn’t won a race in fifty years. From fake moon landings to mind-controlling chem-trails, conspiracies have a near-perfect record of turning out to be utter garbage.

Maverick ideas can be awesome, but they need to be thoroughly and objectively tested – ideally not in the middle of a pandemic. The peer-review process remains the gold standard for advancing human knowledge. The alternative - a cluster-fuck of theories, counter theories, speculation, one-upmanship, citizen journalism, celebrity chef cures, and aggressively defended opinions - is a recipe for drinking bleach.

Conspiracy theories are a bit like gossip magazines I’ve come to think – mostly harmless, mostly wrong, best ignored. But during a pandemic, gossip can become weaponised. Not against you and me but against the sick and to the elderly. Remember them? While the situation is rapidly deescalating here, Australia’s entire COVID death count is still being exceeded every six hours in the states, where the death toll is fast approaching 100,000.

It’s not a deadly as previous pandemics and not as bad as some experts feared but that’s a lot of graves and a lot of grieving. So far, more Americans have been killed by COVID than the Vietnam, Afghanistan, Gulf War, and Iraq Wars combined. And yet, in protestor circles, distrust, ignorance, and hubris is snuffing empathy and making a difficult situation much worse.

The Atlantic made this plea recently:the consequences of blaming the coronavirus’s emergence on the wrong source, or of doubting its seriousness, could be life-threatening on a massive scale. People who believe that the virus is a bioweapon may be more likely to engage in hoarding and other self-centered behaviours. And if the one in three Americans who believe that the effects of COVID-19 have been exaggerated choose to forgo crucial health practices… then the disease could spread faster and farther and could cost many thousands of lives.”