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On Conspiracists, Curses, Charlatans And COVID-19 – OpEd

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A day after the first American case of COVID-19 was announced on January 21, Joe Kernen of CNBC asked US President Donald Trump, “Are there worries about a pandemic at this point?” Trump’s response was short and sweet- “No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

But just 56 days down the line, Trump did a volte face and told reporters that “This is a pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” So, now that even the world’s most illustrious epitome of unbridled conceit and obduracy has accepted the reality, it’s time for us lesser mortals do likewise.

But, doing so won’t be easy a there seems to be a ‘Trump’ hidden in almost every person’s psyche- concealed somewhere in the cerebrum, it (to use Trump’s words), tells us “I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for President.”

This explains why almost all of us continue to accept conspiracy theories, or trust bizarre remedies conjured by unknown social media addicts and even start believing charlatans with dubious antecedents who dish out unconvincing religious explanations for this pandemic and also provide highly unscientific (and at times equally obnoxious) cures.

Conspiracists

There are people who are naturally gifted with or have acquired a fertile imagination, but for a host of reasons haven’t been able to accomplish their dreams of being recognized as the modern-day incarnation of Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie — and let me assure you, they’re plenty of them.

Initially it was claimed that the COVID-19 virus had spread through consumption of bats or some other exotic breed of animals like the pangolin. But when this theory was challenged on the grounds that Chinese had traditionally been consuming these foods for centuries without ever having experienced such a pandemic, conspiracists had a field day to fill the information ‘vacuum’ with juicy renditions.

Resultantly, we have conspiracies galore; of how this virus accidentally leaked out while Chinese scientists were experimenting on ways to reduce its virulence to the extent that it only causes influenza that could be treated, so that it could be used to quell the Hong Kong protests.

One also hears of CIA’s plan to secretly acquire samples of this mutated virus for America’s own biological warfare program by bribing a Chinese scientist working at the Wuhan facility; of how the crowded Wuhan market was selected as the rendezvous where this virus sample would be handed over and how its contents were accidentally released into the air when the delinquent scientist was caught in the act and was being restrained by the Chinese authorities.

But besides conspiracies that indict the Chinese, there are other accounts that squarely blame America. One version talks about how the COVID-19 virus had actually leaked out from a US Biological Warfare facility at Fort Detrick in August 2019 infecting US Army soldiers. Some of those effected were part of the 280 strong US Army contingent that participated in the Military World Games held in Wuhan during October and these participants infected the Chinese by visiting Wuhan market.

To give this version greater authenticity, its proponents have even claimed that the Americans didn’t even win a single medal at these games because they were suffering from COVID-19 and that empty bioweapon drums were recovered from US Consulate premises at Wuhan after it was vacated.

Godmen, preachers and their ‘divine’ expositions

Since time immemorial, humans have always associated natural calamities as the physical manifestation of the wrath of the Gods and despite rapid advances in science that gives a logical explanation for the same, the persistent strain of superstition deeply embedded in the human mind makes us vulnerable to hearsay, especially when it’s couched in religious rhetoric.

This is largely because in every religion there is mention about the Almighty collectively punishing humans for having deviated from the prescribed path of righteousness, not as retribution but only to get them back on the right track. Although such belief tends to make one fatalistic, it nevertheless pacifies people as they ungrudgingly accept the prevailing crisis as being the wish of their creator. But the flip side is that such a mindset also gives godmen and opportunists an excellent chance of exploiting human vulnerabilities to pursue their own motivated agendas.

Are the Gods angry?

Tunisian cleric Bechir Ben Hassen holds that, “The (COVID) virus is a soldier in Allah’s army. Today, it’s toppling people as if they were insects. The Chinese authorities imposed a siege on one million Uighur Muslims, and now 50 million Chinese are besieged because of the virus, and they can’t find a cure for it because this is God’s will.”

Rabbi Meir Mazuz has a different explanation — he believes that this pandemic is nature’s way of punishing nations that allow LGBTQ parades. Another Rabbi named Shlomo Aviner tells us that since, “man thinks he is God, that he is the master and can decide what is good and bad,” the COVID-19 virus has been sent by our creator with the implied message that, “let us see you fight the smallest of God’s creations. This creation is called corona, a crown.”

Muslim Cleric Ilyas Sharafuddin from India says, “Remember how they (Chinese authorities) have threatened the Muslims and tried to destroy lives of 20 million Muslims. Muslims were forced to drink alcohol; their mosques were destroyed and their Holy Book was burned. They (the Chinese) thought that no one can challenge them, but Allah the most powerful punished them.”

This view is endorsed by at least three clerics from the Middle East. But Syrian cleric Abd Al-Razzaq Al-Mahdi goes a step ahead by tweeting, “God gave them a soldier (virus). And many of God’s soldiers said, Glory be to Him … O God, increase their (the Chinese) suffering and affliction until they stop fighting your religion and worshipers.”

Good God!

Cures ‘prescribed’

Social media is full of prescriptions guaranteeing prevention against contracting COVID-19 as well as a sure-shot cure for those afflicted by this virus. But while we may laugh at the ignoramus for blindly believing these misleading precautions and remedies, let’s not forget that there are many well-educated people who claim to be blueblood rationalists end up abetting proliferation of fake news by blindly ‘forwarding’ such illogical posts on social media.

According to Televangelist Pat Robertson, consumption of sauerkraut (finely cut raw cabbage that has been fermented by various lactic acid bacteria) can prevent coronavirus as it is rich in probiotics.

This prescription may sound weird since no relation between coronavirus and probiotics has yet been conclusively established, but the next two prescriptions are downright gross. How can any educated person ever believe that what a cow excretes as waste can serve as complete remedy for a medical condition created by a deadly mutated virus like COVID-19? But yet, Ms Suman Haripriya, a legislator of India’s Bhartiya Janata Party thinks so!

Similarly, Abbas Tabrizan (whom his supporters refer to as “Ayatollah” and hail as “the father of Islamic medicine of Iran,”) is confident that coronavirus can be cured merely by applying violet oil to the anus!

One can only pray to God that better sense prevails amongst those who ‘believe’ in like of Ms Haripriya and Tabrizan!

Preachers or charlatans?

Lastly, while religious preachers need to understand that their illogical intransigence could well result in their congregation being exposed to grave risk of contracting coronavirus, followers need to guard against blindly following practices and rituals that are fraught with danger.

A few examples of such incidents that have come to light are mentioned below:

  • In South Korea, a secretive Christian sect called Shincheonji ignored government advice on precautionary measures against coronavirus and held a prayer service. Later, it admitted that media accusations of “our ‘unusual service style’ (is) a reality where we had to hold service on the floor to maximize the number of occupants in our small space.” Investigation also revealed that the attendees were discouraged from wearing masks as it would offend God. Experts believe that since the attendees had come from all over the country, those infected during this service had transmitted the virus across the entire nation.
  • In Iran, the outbreak of COVID-19 seems to have started in religious city of Qom. But rather than go in for quarantine as medically recommended, representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader in Qom, cleric Mohammad Saeedi urged Iranians to visit Imam Reza shrine, saying that, “We consider this holy shrine to be a place of healing. That means people should come here to heal from spiritual and physical diseases.” Several COVID-19 cases reported in Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Canada, Georgia, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates have been linked to people who had visited Qom.
  • In February, more than approximately 14,500 local and 1,500 foreign members of Tablighi Jamaat, which is one of the largest faith-based Islamic movements in the world, attended a four-day conclave for “spiritual renewal” in Malaysia. During this meet, devotees not only participated in mass prayers and partook community meals but also went out to preach. As a result, more than 600 local attendees tested positive for corona virus along with several others who had come from neighboring Brunei, Thailand and Singapore.

Unfortunately, despite worldwide awareness on the importance of ‘social distancing’, Kashmir’s Grand Mufti, Nasir ul Islam’s recent interview with Kashmir Reader indicates that even on the coronavirus issue he’s very much remains a bundle of paradoxes. On the one hand he laments that “Kashmir is ill prepared, has no infrastructure for controlling the virus if it enters the later stages. It has to be controlled at this stage only.” But even after acknowledging that “Prevention is better than cure, no doubt,” he turns into a pandemic expert and says, “But the virus won’t spread if a few people are offering prayers in a mosque.”

Tailpiece: While the Grand Mufti’s assurance that “we are concerned about people,” is certainly reassuring, but when he in the same breadth adds that “We are just figuring out the situation. A call will be taken if things get out of control,” then he gives an impression that he firmly believes in the cavalier ‘we shall cross the bridge when it comes’ approach and that’s when the real worry starts.

Nilesh Kunwar

Nilesh Kunwar

Nilesh Kunwar is a retired Indian Army Officer who has served in Jammu & Kashmir, Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. He is a ‘Kashmir-Watcher,’ and now after retirement is pursuing his favorite hobby of writing for newspapers, journals and think tanks.

One thought on “On Conspiracists, Curses, Charlatans And COVID-19 – OpEd

  • Avatar
    March 26, 2020 at 3:40 am
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    Nilesh Dai,Very enlightening article.My compliments.

    Reply

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