The missing virus

So far, COVID-19 has infected near five million people worldwide, with over three hundred thousand dead.

I live in a country that has fortunately not been hit as hard as some other countries around the world. According to official data, we have just over two thousand cases, and a bit over a hundred people have died. Our government’s reaction has been adequate: perhaps a bit restrictive at first, it never went to extremes like forbidding people from leaving their homes. It did ban travel between major cities, close restaurants, hotels, and gyms, forbid organised sport.

We read all about Italy or the UK, or US, but luckily this simply didn’t happen here. Maybe you could call this a success, or maybe we’re yet to see the situation evolve. Nonetheless, people eventually got tired of waiting at home with nothing going on. The apparent resolution of the crisis led to a change in the government’s approach: businesses were reopened, restrictions were lifted, and we are about to return to our normal lives. You could hear journalists announcing the apocalypse had skipped us, and the government was quick to shift focus to offsetting the economic crisis.

The world’s got all kinds of conspiracy theorists, and while, fortunately, we haven’t gone as far as to burn down cell phone signal transmission towers, the breed of the coronavirus denier has been born.

This sort of individual could be under-educated as well as well-educated; possibly a good example of our imperfect educational system, or maybe just of the influence the people close to us can exert. He or she would usually have some anecdotal data of how a person they knew knew another person who’d heard that all of this was a lie, often with very specific examples (like somebody who had died of being shot having been reported as having died from COVID-19). The government had been lying, everyone else has been lying too, simply because no one knew anyone who’d been sick. A drawback of having too few people sick, possibly. Interestingly, these people would often not have an idea of why it would all have been a lie. They just knew something wasn’t right or didn’t add up.

In Bulgaria, this could possibly be attributed to the diminished faith in authority. The system’s always been corrupted, with shady people allegedly pulling the strings from behind. It’s a common assumption that everyone in a position of power is a criminal. It’s probably only fair, with scandals being common in its administration, and our country often being outed for having quite a few issues with corruption and freedom of speech. If the authorities would do anything to increase their wealth and power, why wouldn’t they invent an imaginary disease? “We don’t know, but something just doesn’t add up.” That’s one possible reasoning for local deniers.

Social media doesn’t help, either. Fake news has been a hot topic for a while now. Large outlets like Facebook and Twitter have faced challenges controlling and restricting information that’s been designed to mislead. They’d employ large staff, hire external companies and develop algorithms to combat this phenomena, yet often be ineffective. This effort, though, is mainly focused on the most common languages and locales with the most users. For our country this means content in Bulgarian is seldom flagged as fake news and hardly ever removed. We’ve tried reporting multiple posts and pages on Facebook, only to eventually get the standard boilerplate response that Facebook had reviewed the reports but didn’t find it to violate their community guidelines.

So, to sum up: fake information is easy to share, people don’t trust those in power, believe they’d do anything to their benefit, they’d rather believe someone they know (or someone someone they know knows) than the media; the seemingly successful response to the disease means they are not acquaintanted to anyone who’s been sick. Is it the perfect recipe to believing it’s all a hoax?

I wouldn’t know. Perhaps I myself have fallen for the same fallacy of anecdotal evidence, knowing some people like this, believing there must be a whole lot more? While in fact they are a small minority? Could be.

The real questions might then be: how do you help such people in your circle? Do you tell them they’re wrong? And should you? Should you wait until they start burning cell phone towers?

Expressed opinions are my own. I acknowledge I may be wrong, and my opinion may change in the future. If you have any comments, please mail them to vox at ivo.qa (PGP).