From the Black Death to ebola, history shows we shouldn’t be surprised that the latest pandemic prompted waves of misconceptions. But Covid was different — and we need to be better prepared next time
At about 3am on November 14, 1721, someone threw a bomb through the window of the Reverend Cotton Mather’s Boston home.
A smallpox epidemic had been tearing through the colonial town, and Mather — a prominent Puritan minister — wasn’t content with simply attending to the spiritual needs of the dying. Instead, he advocated an experimental medical procedure that he believed might help fight the disease. His efforts attracted a fierce backlash: attached to the bomb was a note that read “Cotton Mather, you dog… I’ll inoculate you with this.”
Three centuries later, and the backlash to the medical descendants of his pioneering experiment — vaccines — is no less fervent. Across large parts of the world, cities have witnessed major protests against vaccines; messages warning against them spread through Facebook and WhatsApp groups.
This is not simply a disagreement about a medical treatment but, for many, the belief that the vaccines represent a sinister plot against the public. It’s a view driven by dark suspicions that the world as we know it is entirely false, and that all global events are shaped by shadowy powers whose only goal is increasing their vice-like grip on humanity.
But as the attack on Cotton Mather shows, this kind of response to a pandemic isn’t new. In fact, the link between disease and conspiracy theories has a long and disturbing history.
Conspiracy theories about Covid-19 spread around the world almost as quickly as the virus itself.
They came in a variety of flavours. It was caused by 5G technology. It was a deliberately designed bioweapon. The vaccines had microchips in them to track or control the population. The whole thing was a nefariously plotted “plandemic”. The theories began almost as soon as the world started paying attention to that weird cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan. They’ve kept going ever since.
The first thing that strikes you about them is that, well, they often don’t make a ton of sense. The second thing is that this doesn’t really seem to matter to those who believe them.
Take the 5G theory — or rather, the theories, because there are multiple, contradictory ones. In the spring of 2020, if you looked at one of the major anti-5G Facebook groups, you could find pretty much all of them side-by-side.
Some thought that 5G was making a real — but mild — virus more deadly; others said that there was no virus at all, and the sickness was caused directly by 5G; a third camp insisted that nobody was getting sick at all, and the whole thing was faked so governments could secretly install 5G under cover of lockdown.
The fact that these couldn’t all be true didn’t seem to unduly concern anyone.
Likewise, the huge body of evidence for the vaccines’ safety and efficacy hasn’t changed the minds of many true believers (not to mention the fact that the vaccines very obviously don’t have microchips in them, because microchips aren’t actually invisible.) One of the hallmarks of conspiracy theories is the way that evidence against them can simply be dismissed — it just shows how deep the conspiracy goes.
At the heart of all this is one of the biggest reasons why conspiracy theories of all kinds thrive: a little thing called “proportionality bias”. Put simply, this is our deeply ingrained sense that if an event is big and dramatic and world-shaking, then it must have had an equally big, dramatic cause. It can never be the result of something small, or inconsequential, or simple bad luck.
Planes don’t just crash; assassinations can never be the work of one weird loner; and a pandemic that turns the world upside down simply can’t be due to a virus randomly mutating somewhere in a bat in China.
The bomb thrown into Rev Mather’s home in 1721 failed to go off. That’s how we know what the attached note said. (It’s not clear if the note-sender had entirely thought through that aspect of their plan.) And despite the threats, Mather persisted with his experiment, successfully: it produced strong evidence that inoculation significantly reduced smallpox deaths.
Many who had been initially sceptical were eventually won over — august figures such as Benjamin Franklin, who as a teenager had seen anti-Mather screeds published in his brother’s Boston newspaper. Inoculation, already common across much of Africa and Asia, began to be adopted in the West.
The resistance never went away, though. In 1853, anti-vaccine riots took place in several English towns; a few decades later, organisations such as the Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League and the Anti-Vaccination Society of America wielded significant influence.
And that hastily thrown bomb in Boston was neither the first nor the last outbreak of violence spurred by the conspiratorial belief that people were deliberately spreading disease.
For centuries before, as the Black Death swept across medieval Europe and panics laid blame for the sickness on deliberately poisoned wells, there were outbreaks of deadly violence and mass murder, often targeted at Jewish populations.
Throughout much of the 19th century, “cholera riots” brought violence to the streets of cities across Europe and America, fuelled by conspiracy theories that the spread of the disease was a deliberate act. There were more than 70 such riots across Ireland and Britain in just one 14-month period, in towns and cities including Dublin, Sligo, Derry, Glasgow, Liverpool and London.
The belief that the disease was an act of poisoning wasn’t the only conspiracy theory about cholera — some denied its existence entirely, with one correspondent to the Lancet medical journal insisting the epidemic was merely a “government hoax” spread by the “liespapers” — but it was certainly the most dominant. In Paris, the author Alexandre Dumas wrote in his memoirs that those suspected of spreading the sickness faced mob violence: “A man would be pointed at with a finger — pursued, attacked and killed!”
What prompted such a reaction? The answer lies in the patterns of the disease. Cholera — spread through dirty, infected water in ever-more crowded and unsanitary cities — was brutal in its inequality, killing the poor at far greater rates than the rich. It didn’t take much to look at that pattern, put two and two together and conclude that elites had come up with a plot to cull the masses.
Adding to this was distrust of medical authorities — sometimes based on genuine grievances, but often on little more than the fact that more people tended to die in hospitals than elsewhere, because that’s where the sickest people were taken.
This led to the theory that the doctors were actually responsible for spreading the poison. During cholera riots, hospitals were trashed and violent crowds formed to try to stop the sick from being taken inside. Medics were commonly attacked; in Paris they were forced to adopt disguises just to make house calls.
Similar theories would fuel riots in India and Hong Kong towards the end of the 19th century, this time as a plague epidemic burned through much of Asia. In Hong Kong, a particularly gruesome twist on the theory held that British doctors were “scooping out the eyes of children to make medicines”. (This was all exacerbated by the British colonial authorities handling the situation with roughly the levels of tact and sensitivity towards the local population that you would expect of British colonial authorities.)
Similar beliefs have persisted into the 20th and, of course, 21st first centuries. During the inaccurately named “Spanish flu” of 1918, coming as World War I was winding down, there were widespread conspiracy theories that it was spread deliberately by the Germans as a weapon of war. The belief that HIV was created by the US government — a theory likely to have originated in Soviet propaganda — would have a disastrous influence on public health policy in countries such as South Africa. And in the ebola epidemics of recent decades, Red Cross workers have been subjected to attacks, fuelled by rumours that they were spraying the disease into schools.
In other words, we shouldn’t have been surprised that conspiracy theories spread around the world alongside the Covid pandemic. Based on the long, intertwined history of diseases and conspiracy theories, it would have been remarkable if they hadn’t.
Even so, there’s still something… different about the batch of theories that accompanied Covid.
In earlier times, these were limited in scope: they were attempts to explain a single event, like an outbreak, as the result of a conspiracy. The modern ones, by contrast, don’t limit themselves in this way: the disease is just one among a vast, interconnected web of conspiracies. It’s not just one-off events any more — virtually every facet of the modern world is explained as being the result of a secret plot.
This meant that the Covid conspiracies didn’t spring from nowhere; they weren’t created in response to the pandemic. Rather, existing theories — and the communities that believed them — latched on to the pandemic to gain converts. And those theories often have histories every bit as long and weird as their pandemic variants.
The idea that vaccines are a tool of population control, implemented by a shadowy global elite? That stems from the “New World Order” branch of the conspiracy ecosystem, a mainstay of theories since the 1950s, which warns of an evil plan to bring the citizens of Earth under the control of a single world government. That theory in turn has a lineage that dates all the way back to the French Revolution, which many influential people blamed on a short-lived group of German academics — whose name, the Illuminati, has become a byword for plotters down the ages.
For decades, many of these theories have zoomed in on public health interventions as a supposed tool of global conspirators. Vaccination is a common target, but far from the only one. Fluoridation of water is another common one. One right-wing periodical was asserting as far back as 1960 that “fluoridation is known to Communists as a method of Red warfare”.
At some point in the 1980s, this started to merge with the previously separate strand of UFO conspiracy beliefs, introducing a handy element of sci-fi to proceedings — alien technology being quite a useful plot device if you’re struggling to explain exactly how those invisible vaccine-microchips work.
The internet has accelerated this process of theories crossing over and merging — as well as making it easier than ever to dredge up old theories from history and apply them to the modern age. Social media allows believers to find each other and form in-groups that only reinforce their beliefs. And people looking for an answer to the sense that something’s not quite right with the world will find a welcoming community, ready to give them more than they ever bargained for.
As a result, the paranoid, conspiratorial backlash to pandemics has come a long way since someone chucked a bomb through Cotton Mather’s window in 1721, or since rioters smashed up hospitals in 1832.
The basic human impulses behind them are still the same: distrust of authority, mistaking natural patterns of disease for the actions of human intelligence, and the sense that dramatic events must have equally dramatic causes. But now those suspicions find a home in a sprawling universe of interwoven conspiracy theories. And if you start believing one, there’s a good chance you’ll end up believing them all.
The pandemic isn’t over yet. We don’t know when the next one will hit. It could be in 50 years; it could be this year. But it’s a safe bet that when it does, it’ll once again be accompanied by conspiracy theories, just as all the others were.
As we debate how to bolster our medical defences for the next big one, it might be wise to think about how we can better prepare our information defences as well.
‘Conspiracy: A History of Boll*cks Theories, and How Not to Fall for Them’ by Tom Phillips and Jonn Elledge (Wildfire) is out on July 7