Update coronavirus July 2021

Conspiracy theories about coronavirus have become so widespread that they’re now generating news stories in the national media and provoking public reactions from government ministers. The most popular seems to be one that links the pandemic to the roll-out of 5G mobile technology. At the beginning of the year, the UK government finally approved the Chinese company Huawei as a supplier of equipment for 5G, after a very public controversy in which critics, many of them on the right of the Conservative Party, voiced objections on the grounds that they believed the company had close connections with the Chinese government. Where is Huawei’s research centre? In Wuhan. And what else was there in Wuhan? The Wuhan Institute of Virology, a top-level research centre. And where did the coronavirus start? Why, in Wuhan too. And when? Just as the roll-out of 5G was beginning.

It didn’t take long for the conspiracy theorists to join the dots. The virus was man-made, created in a laboratory in Wuhan, part of a Chinese plot to develop biological warfare systems. The masts were spreading the virus through high-frequency emissions. The virus was designed to suppress the human immune system. Or to suck oxygen out of the lungs. Ultimately it aimed to reduce the population of the West and undermine its economies. There weren’t any cases in Africa because 5G hadn’t been set up there.

In the meantime, 5G masts have been going up all over Britain to enable its adoption. Anti-5G organisations, such as Stop 5G UK, which has 27,000 members in its Facebook group, have claimed that the masts’ radiation damages people’s health and lowers their fertility (shades of the film Dr Strangelove here); and they have embraced the new conspiracy theory as further evidence of the dangers posed by the system. In a recent TV interview with London Live, the conspiracy theorist David Icke has referred to an “electro-magnetic technologically generated soup of radiation toxicity”, which he claimed damaged old people’s immune systems.

But medical authorities have confirmed there’s no evidence that the masts are harmful to human health or that the virus was developed in a laboratory (similar conspiracy theories made the same unfounded allegation a few decades ago about HIV and Aids). And there are cases of coronavirus in Africa. The national medical director for England, Stephen Powis, has said: “The 5G story is complete and utter rubbish, it’s nonsense, it’s the worst kind of fake news.”

***

The paranoid fantasies of conspiracy theorists sometimes have consequences in the real world. During the US presidential election campaign in 2016, a story generated by a white-supremacist website alleged that top campaign officials of the Democratic Party were running a Satanic child sex abuse ring centred on pizza parlours in Washington, DC. One of these, the Comet Ping Pong, was said to have kept sex slaves in its cellar. A young man then appeared in the restaurant and fired three shots from a rifle (fortunately not injuring anyone), demanding to inspect the cellar. There was no cellar underneath the Comet Ping Pong, however, and he was arrested. The conspiracy theory was subsequently comprehensively discredited, by the Washington police among others.

The 5G coronavirus conspiracy theory has also spilled over from social media into real life. “It is time to act now,” read one tweet: “Any 5G tower in your area burn it down! Collect people and stand and fight this. Act now before it’s too late!” Some anti-5G campaigners took this exhortation literally and began attacking the masts. So far, six have been burned down in locations ranging from Birmingham to Belfast. This has alarmed non-violent protest groups. A post on an anti-5G Facebook page has expressed alarm about individuals who “have decided to target telecoms workers, as they believe and claim them to be ‘criminals’ and ‘genocidists’”. Employees of OpenReach, which is involved in upgrading mobile phone masts, have posted on anti-5G websites, pleading not to be shouted at or verbally abused in the street; in most cases, in fact, they are not working on the masts anyway. Social media companies have taken down posts urging or applauding the destruction of masts. Medical commentators have pointed out that mobile phone networks are essential for organising the fight against the epidemic and attacking them is not just counterproductive, it’s also dangerous.
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