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Conspiracy theories, accusations and myths spread faster than coronavirus

Conspiracy or global killer? A computer image of a member of the Covid-19 viral family.
Conspiracy or global killer? A computer image of a member of the Covid-19 viral family. NEXU Science Communication/via REUTERS

While the coronavirus has already claimed over 2,700 victims worldwide, and China, South Korea and other countries report over 80,000 cases, accusations, conspiracy theories and dubious facts about the virus are spreading fast as well.

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“It is quite evident that the clerical regime is covering up the real scope of this disease in Iran and has deliberately misled the public and failed to take proper actions to deal with this growing threat that has become epidemic,” writes the opposition Iranian group National Council of Resistance Iran (NCRI) on its website.

“Iran’s regime, careless about the risks to the health of the Iranian people, did not take any precautionary measures,” the post continues, pointing out that one airline, Mahan Air, “not only continued its flights to China, but also engaged in the transportation of Chinese passengers,” as a result of which the coronavirus spread to other cities.

The resistance group, in exile in France, gives regular updates on the spread of the coronavirus in Iran, saying that the government is not doing enough to slow the epidemic.

The regime has officially acknowledged 12 deaths and 64 infections – among them the vice-Minister of Health - but local reports indicate that the figures are much higher and the NCRI is quick to cite a report by official ILNA news agency – that was quickly altered - quoting member of parliament Ahmad Amirabiad Farahani as saying that, in the city of Qom alone, ten residents die per day as a result of the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, the Iranian government-controlled press rejects criticism, but instead attacks neighboring Turkey, accusing “Turkish media” of hiding the fact that “Turkish airliners continued transporting passengers from China and did not say a word about the necessity of closing borders to Chinese tourists nor the cancellation of flights originating from China.”

Falun Gong

A New York-based Chinese meditation group, the Falun Gong, which is designated as an “evil cult” by Beijing and banned in China, publishes daily updates on the spread of the coronavirus within China, with sometimes very detailed, but not always verifiable reports.

On 25 February, the Falun Gong’s website carried the story about a neighborhood in Wuhan which was given up by the Communist Party, as there were too many cases of the deadly virus. Reporting them, the story goes, would get the authorities of the enclave into trouble with the Beijing authorities, so local officials abandoned the inhabitants without help.

The meditation group also suggests that practicing Falun Gong may help to cure people from the illness, citing cases of infected people who recovered after reciting that “Falun Dafa is good”.

Russia gets bats in the belfry

In January, Kremlin-sponsored tv-station Russia Today, came up with the story that the virus was spread among humans after they ate bat-soup.

That story was taken over by western media such as the British Daily Mail and may have encouraged Chinese authorities to close down wet markets where exotic animals such as ant-eaters and owls were sold for consumption.

Researchers say that, even if coronaviral sequences have been detected in bats, there is no insurmountable evidence that bats are the real source of the current outbreak.

American bio-weapon

Another theory launched in Russia was floated late in January by the leader of the far-right Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who told a Moscow radio station that he thought coronavirus was an American bio-weapon or a big plot by pharmaceutical companies to get richer, adding that “pharmacists will become billionaires in 2020”.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the gossipy Washington Times floated the theory that the coronavirus was the result of a Chinese bio-warfare program.

The suspicions were fed by the fact that Wuhan is home to one of China’s top-level bio-research facilities, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which was part of a Sino-French cooperation project based on the Inserm Jean Mérieux P4 facility in Lyon, but there is no clear link between the lab and the current coronavirus outbreak.

Rightwing radio show host Rush Limbaugh even went as far as saying that the virus was a Chinese communist conspiracy causing mass hysteria and bringing down US President Donald Trump.

Myth busters

To fight misinformation, the World Health Organization has opened a webpage containing “myth busters,” for instance that hand dryers are not effective in killing the virus, nor is spraying alcohol or chlorine on the skin.

Meanwhile, the site says, it is safe to receive a letter or a package from China, as the virus doesn’t survive very long in the open.

Garlic, says the site, which may be effective against vampires, is not useful against the coronavirus.

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