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Artworks by Vincent Galang

Bill Gates, biowarfare, and wireless 5G networks may seem disconnected from one another. But adding a sprinkle of factoids here and some unrelated tangents there can be enough to launch a conspiracy theory about the novel coronavirus.

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For a trained eye, conspiracy theories are easy to spot: bad writing, overreaching arguments, sensationalist tone, and obscure (and dubious) sources. They’ve scattered over the internet ever since the boom of social media sharing. What was once an internet phenomenon existing exclusively on online forums now intertwines with geopolitical discourse and our personal lives. We encounter them everywhere — on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, our private family group chats. We get them from a friend, who got it from a friend, who got it from a friend. It’s a whole web created with deceptive information, and they’ve become so convincing over the years that media agencies and government authorities feel the need to actively debunk them — especially when they are used as destructive instruments with a political agenda in its underbelly. After all, the most pervasive conspiracy theories thrive in the cracks of a crisis: where people are anxious, scared, and unsuspecting.

With so many questions yet to be answered about the novel coronavirus — its actual source, how it can spread, whether people can get reinfected, etc. — people turn to conspiracy theories to find some sort of clarity. And until the spaces in the narrative are filled and verified, these conspiracy theories will keep popping up.

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We listed some of the more widespread conspiracy theories revolving around the virus.

#1: China Stole the Coronavirus from Canada

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According to this theory, a pair of Chinese scientists-slash-spies stole the pathogen from Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. These scientists-slash-spies eventually brought these to Wuhan to be integrated into China’s bioweaponry program. According to WIRED, the whole article about this theory originally appeared in GreatGameIndia.com, a relatively low-profile website that previously invented conspiracy theories about the 2013 Malaysian Airline Flight 17 crash, among other things. The article was then reposted by ZeroHedge, a conservative American site. Later on, it was reposted by Red State Watcher, another popular right-wing website, before ending up in thousands of online pages and fora.

The Canadian government denied this, saying that, while the two scientists mentioned in the conspiracy theory do exist and were formally employed by the laboratory, they have been dismissed due to a “policy breach,” and has nothing to do with COVID-19 or anything that posed danger to the public.

#2: Bill Gates is behind the Coronavirus

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Microsoft-founder Bill Gates is being pinned to be behind the creation of COVID-19. In this conspiracy theory, Bill Gates allegedly financed the research and development of the virus through Pirbright Institute, a UK-based research facility that was funded by the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation. Citing a patent claim by Pirbright to a coronavirus from 2015, the theory suggests that Gates must have known about this virus for a long time, and is now using it as a way to profit from the vaccine that is being consequently developed. To add more sides to the story, it also cites a 2018 speech by Gates in the Massachusetts Medical Society, wherein he said that a virus, similar to the 1918 Flu Pandemic, could sweep the world, and public health systems are not ready for it.

The conspiracy theory is bizarre and baseless. The coronavirus patent filed by Pirbright was, in fact, for a strain found in chickens (there are many types of coronavirus, and Pirbright specializes in virus research among livestock animals). Moreover, Bill Gates has talked about the possibility of a major health crisis since 2015 to nudge governments to prioritize public health in the same way wars are prioritized. It was a fair and reasonable call which was based on Gates’ years of involvement in science and medical research.

#3 It’s a Bioweapon created in a laboratory

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Another variation of the “bioweapon” conspiracy theory is that China created the virus in a laboratory, and released (either intentionally or accidentally) it to gain political and economic superiority over the world. The story suggests that the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a research facility in Wuhan, must have McGyver-ed the virus and leaked it in a nearby wet market. This conspiracy theory was so widespread that even reliable news outfits jumped into reporting variations of the story.

The theory does not hold as multiple research has already verified that the virus is of natural origin and could not have possibly been manmade.

#4 It’s caused by the 5G network!

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Possibly the wildest of all these hoaxes is the one that points to the 5G network as the source of the novel coronavirus. 5G, the wave spectrum used for cellular and internet connection, supposedly suppresses the immune system for the virus to thrive or directly carry the virus itself. This claim has already caused riots across Europe, where some 5G cell towers are being destroyed and burnt down.

According to The Verge, the conspiracy theory originated from a Belgian newspaper that published a scientifically-dubious report that 5G has serious health risks. They cited the fact that 5G towers were installed in Wuhan, China months before the coronavirus outbreak in the city — so, logically, it must have been the culprit. The Verge also pointed to another source, RT America, a Russia-funded television network. Last year, the station aired a report about how 5G can cause fatality.

The theory has no scientific basis whatsoever. 5G is too weak to have any effect on the body, and cannot possibly cause a virus outbreak. The logic behind this conspiracy theory has been so distorted, that it seems to have not taken into account the fact that there are also large outbreaks even in countries without 5G connectivity.

More hoaxes are floating around, and you’ve probably heard the more local ones such as being able to hold your breath for 10 seconds or more mean that you do not have the virus. Or that you can create a concoction of various household and kitchen items that can kill the coronavirus flu. They are of various proportions, but the simplicity of how they take a foothold in people’s minds suggests a bigger reality. It makes sense why people fall for them. The Philippines has been a ripe host for misinformation to thrive for many years now. Despite private efforts to battle misinformation at the forefront, they still find their way to us. Add to this the nature of information about COVID-19. They are either scarce, convoluted or just not there yet. Playing catch up with the new developments about the virus proved to be more difficult as some things may be true today, only to retracted and overwritten tomorrow. With so many sides unresolved, people naturally turn elsewhere to find answers and clarity — and conspiracy theories are a convenient filler for these gaps. They provide detailed summaries of the circumstances that lead to their conclusions, and many readers do not care to fact-check these claims. While media organizations and government offices are working together to paint a better picture of the virus, it’s still not enough. Some facts will unspool later on, and many of them will only be in hindsight.

We don’t know for certain our point in time relative to the pandemic. This could only be the early stages. Or we could be in the middle. Even experts on science, medicine, and in the economic and political fields know that there are still some blind spots — missing pieces that complete the puzzle. The only definite thing is that this is far from over and that the crisis will still have highs and lows — both in the number of cases and the various complications of its impact.

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