Throughout the world, from nondescript hovels to palatial mansions, the well-lubricated rumour mill has reached dizzying levels of hysteria, actively spewing out a whole slew of seemingly farcical conspiracies on COVID-19.
Senselessly claiming that this disease is at best a tempest in a teapot. Owing to modern technological advances, such conspiracies have reached almost every nook and corner of the global village.
At the heart of the current social discourse is the racially and emotionally charged debates telegraphed to all and sundry with churlish charisma, largely revolving around the source of the virus and motives of companies driving production of vaccines. Through YouTube videos, podcasts and social media posts, bloggers, influencers, aspiring influencers and non-influencers have been barking like famished and aggressive wolves, peddling conspiracies aimed at dissuading people from accepting to be inoculated with COVID-19 vaccines. Is this purely some form of self-serving rationalisation?
Some people believe that this virus was deliberately ‘manufactured’ in China with the blessing of wealthy pseudo-philanthropists whose motive was to wipe a targeted percentage of the global population. The conspiracy theory that has gained traction, particularly in Africa, is that the multi-billion-dollar global pharmaceutical industry, led by huge self-centred firms based in Europe and the United States, is bent on wiping the entire black human race, or at least a substantial part thereof. Hence vaccines produced in the West or elsewhere, using ‘formulae’ vetted by Western companies are viewed with suspicion by some Pan-Africanists. Are you a COVID-19 vaccine Vergligte or Verkampte? In the latter half of the 1960s, these two words made it into the Afrikaans parlance in the racially polarised South Africa. Three decades prior to the birth of the rainbow nation, forward-thinking Afrikaners were forced to review their hard-lined stance on apartheid.
In his autobiography entitled, ‘The Last Trek, a New Beginning,’ the last president of apartheid South Africa, Frederik Willem de Klerk, states that in 1966, his brother Dr. Willem de Klerk, delivered a speech which divided South African whites into three distinct categories, “the verligtes, or enlightened group who were inclined to over-hasty and ill-considered change, the verkamptes,… who opposed every form of change, and the positive, balanced group who accepted the necessity for change, but who wanted to promote ordered and goal-oriented change.”
If we were to apply the terms used by Dr. Willem de Klerk to the current COVID-19 saga, what would you label yourself? Would you claim to be a COVID-19 verligte, part of the ‘enlightened’ global community inclined to accept the existence of COVID-19 as a pandemic for which certain protocols have to be unquestionably observed to curb its spread? Are you a COVID-19 verkampte, a staunch opponent of anything that is pro-curbing the spread of the virus, either because you believe that COVID-19 is a figment of some hubristic white capitalists’ fertile imagination or on account of the ‘fact’ that you want to resist all efforts at defacing you and your kin from planet earth? Or would you choose to tread the cautious route and claim to be part of the positive group, the balanced individuals who appreciate the need for change, willingly playing your part in leading the world towards the path of herd immunity, irrespective of whether this would result in the need to temporarily sacrifice your much-cherished civil liberties?
Issues of health, particularly where one’s rights might trample on another’s, always generate excitement. Human rights apply to health choices, including medical treatment, surgical procedures and vaccine inoculations. The two that come to mind are, the right to informed consent and the right to self-determination. In the context of COVID-19, the former confers the right to a clear and truthful explanation of the preventive nature of the vaccine plus all known risks and side-effects. On the basis of that, mature individuals would assess the risk-benefit ratio and make an informed decision on whether to accept the vaccine or not. While the latter right recognises that individuals cannot be dragooned into accepting vaccines, it also acknowledges that such a right is not absolute. The said right may be respected by governmental authorities as long as it does not prejudice public health and safety.
To the Government’s credit, authorities have endeavoured to share as much information as possible on COVID-19, including vaccines available as well as benefits and risks. The common view across many governments is that the benefits of accepting a jab substantially outweigh the risks. Quite instructive is this legal apophthegm credited to an American named Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a non-conformist jurist fondly remembered for his dissenting judgements and unforgettable punchy one-liners. He said, “Your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.” In simple terms, ‘your rights end where mine begin.’
I have no right to encroach on your rights. Neither do you have a right to infringe mine. Individuals who reject vaccines might compromise public health and safety. For the greater good of the majority, would it be appropriate for governments to forcibly inoculate peddlers of conspiracy theories? In their quest to push for herd immunity, governments may choose not to bother these people, as long as the ratio of 70% in vaccinations is guaranteed. However, should it prove that conspirators exceed 30%, authorities may demand that these people toe the vaccination line.
What’s your view about conspiracy theories circulating in the world? Do you think they are anchored on an accurate and informed understanding of the source of COVID-19 as well as the true motivation for inoculations? Or are they simply an unfortunate form of unrestrained and willful rumour mongering likely to fritter away opportunities for safeguarding mankind’s health?
In highlighting the non-absolute nature of rights, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre.” Since things are likely to go to hell in a handbasket if COVID-19 is not contained, do the citizenry and the denizenry have the right to drive harmful agenda, hiding behind the porous veil of free speech? Here is a sobering thought. While we don’t necessarily want to inhibit the culture of sharing alternative viewpoints in the marketplace of opinions, if with devious intent, conspirators are wrong, apart from avidly rousing them from their state of torpor, doesn’t the principle of consequence management demand that we should decisively hold their feet to the fire and insist that they should account for misinformation. Lest we forget, a frequently repeated lie often mutates into a perceived monster truth. Didn’t Mark Twain say, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its boots.”