COVID-19, End of Life Work and Conspiracy Theories
Some Gentle Readers are aware that there are numerous - and increasingly fanciful - conspiracy theories swirling around our COVID-19 world, so today we explore why conspiracy theories are common in times of stress and why some end of life workers are weirdly attached to potentially dangerous conspiracy theories.
Any time there is heightened anxiety in the community there will be conspiracy theories springing up and expecting us to give them credence, oxygen, and airtime. For example, I was in southern California for the turn of the millenium, and bang on schedule the Y2K-ers and the Doomsday Preppers collided in an interesting and highly-predictable fashion as the 'end of the world' met the new internet and computer age. It was fashionable to bulk buy water, kerosene lanterns and wildly overpriced generators (oh! the field day the copyrighters for Ts & Cs had rewriting the no-return policies that month!) What was not necessarily as well-received at the time though, was the fact that every turn of a century sees a frenzy of 'end of the world' talk, often fuelled by religious superstition. When a millenia rolls around, the frezy is far more exaggerated and heightened. However, the world has - so far at least - kept turning and the sun continues to show up on the eastern horizon as per schedule.
The one consistency we can see here is that uncertainty (whether real or perceived) breeds conspiracy theories and there is some evidence arguing that conspiracy theory detection is a survival trait that we have essentially outgrown as modern humans, but cling to when we are not thinking consciously and critically about the information we are exposed to because we don't seem to have a cerebral off-switch for this trait. COVID-19 is no exception to the uncertainty/conspiracy theory link, and our current crop of conspiracy theories just seem to get bigger and badder as the months go on, like out of control growth hormone in an after-midnight well-fed and sodden Gremlin...
Gentle Readers are well aware that I am both an atheist and a rationalist, meaning that I base my understanding of the world on evidence-based finding, science and research. If you want me to change my understanding, and thus the position I hold on any given topic or idea, then you need to prove to me why my position is in error. This is the beauty of a scientific mindset - unlike a belief-based mindset which resists questions and change (religious frameworks are a good example here), we get to ask questions and then change our minds about what we understand to be right at any time when new information comes to light. This is not about vacillating or being 'wrong', it is about being reflexive in the world, and is a hallmark of critical thinking and mature consideration of the world around us. Informed debate, research and reasoned argument (usually and generally) are how we alter our standpoint and position when new information comes to light.
COVID-19 and Uncertainty
We are all living with a prolonged and extended disruption to our routines, which I have written about a few times this year. This long period of uncertainty, compounded by the genuine uncertainty about how long we will be living with widespread viral contagion under COVID-19 restrictions (possibly another year or so), and when we might be able to go about our lives as we used to (possibly in another year or so, but who knows...) is the perfect fomenting ground for conspiracy theories. With a conspiracy theory we can control the narrative of what we experience around us, even if we feel we can control little else in our lives. Some of the most well-known COVID conspiracy theories include:
The virus is man-made
The virus is a hoax
The virus is caused by 5G and/or 5G towers - even in countries where COVID-19 is present but 5G is not... Appallingly, contractors working on 5G infrastructure have been physically assaulted by people who believe this one, so it is not as amusing in real life as I might like it to be. In one instance in the UK a 5G conspiracy adherent spat in the face of a 5G worker and gave him COVID; as COVID-19 can leave even asymptomatic survivors with permanent cardiac muscle damage (among other after-effects) this aggression is horrifying. If you don't understand how it is biologically impossible for the electromagnetic spectrum to pass along viruses and/or that 5G is just like 3G and cannot affect our immune system, try this.
The virus is a cover story for [insert nefarious government plot du jour here].
Somehow all vaccines are bad - despite centuries of evidence and data to the contrary, as well as epidemiology, virology, medicine, and research - so the search for a COVID-19 vaccine is peak Bad Vaccination. Which is about social control. But these same people obey traffic signals and wear seatbelts when driving, so I am just as confused as you are right now about what is actually going on with this particular conspiracy theory...
Conspiracy Theories tend to grow over time, especially when there is increased pressure on people - for example in Melbourne the conspiracy theories are piling up as the second wave lockdown bites deep for people. As I am quite open in being skeptical of, and to be honest at times openly dismissive of, conspiracy theories in general, I am often approached by friends and colleagues with a 'did you hear about this one?!!' when a new conspiracy theory hits the interwebs. The latest and greatest that was brought to my attention over the weekend (by an End of Life Doula colleague) is that the lockdown in Melbourne is a cover-up involving aged care and COVID-19 all being lies so that the military can (mumble mumble, something about scary activities) manouvre through the under-city tunnels without opposition.
There seems to be quite entrenched attachment to conspiracy theories, unfortunately, in some corners of the end of life work spectrum, too - and I have deliberated long and hard about how much, and where, I respond to the peculiarly weird intersections of end of life and conspiracy theories around COVID-19. What I struggle to understand, genuinely, is how and why so much end of life work is tied to radically anti-science misinformation and - to be honest - stupidity. End of life work is essential, but emerging - and emerging fields are rightly subject to a good deal of scrutiny to ensure that they are not going to be a danger to the public. This is a good thing.
Perhaps one element of this field that might explain some of the entitlement in the stupidity is that the early, core demographic of end of life workers is (by and large) white, middle-class females. This group leads the preponderance of anti-vaxxer misinformation in the world, and so by extension the ranks of some early-adopter End of Life Doulas could be explained to an extent; but the ferociousness with which dissenters to anti-science are pursued by this sector of the field is deeply concerning to me as an End of Life Educator and Consultant myself. I have undertaken to remove myself from groups who take an anti-science stance, and distanced myself from individuals who are of an anti-science mindset, because I value public health as a community right, which supercedes individual 'rights' to behave in a way which puts the most vulnerable community members at particular risk. As a result I have also become a target of vitriol and attack because I do not give either oxygen or credence to wilful ignorance around matters of public health like these.
I am hearing more and more from other end of life workers - often, but not always, End of Life Doulas - who are also deeply concerned about an escalating pattern of insistence that end of life work means believing that vaccinations do not save lives, 5G causes COVID-19, COVID-19 is a 'scandemic' (often, interestingly enough, these last two are held simultaneously as mutally-exclusive double-think parameters of truth), and that to be a good/real end of life Doula a cleaving to these fantasies is essential. When someone has come out in support of pro-science (sometimes on their own, sometimes in support of something I have written) they, too, are being shouted down, shut down, and sidelined in the name of 'including all the voices'.
By way of example: last month, in an Australian-based End of Life Doula online group (which shall remain nameless), an administrator put up a post which purported to contain details of vaccination requirements being relaxed for visitors to Victoria's aged care homes. When I clicked the link I expected to see a government media release or webpage, or at least a creditable news source - but instead I was taken to an anti-vaxxer blog post which managed to shoe-horn in an assertion that COVID needs to be seen as "alleged pandemic" and that all governments should be pressured to do away with vaccinations. As a group administrator represents the ethos of the entire group I took exception to this post and called the person out on the content. I was then the target of several angry responses, including one that tried to argue that anti-vaxxers are not interested in 'control', so it is all OK, as this is a valid 'voice'. I responded with an unpacking of the arrogance of living without preventable diseases for so many decades being presented as a 'valid' platform which insists that the vaccinations which keep entire communities safe are dangerous. To say nothing of invalidating the genuine pain and suffering of those whose lives have been altered by COVID-19 death and ongoing effects.
I have left this group, bumped up the content pertaining to public health in the GDEP online End of Life Consultant training course, and am currently being approached by so many individuals for advice and consultation about how to manage anti-science/conspiracy theory voices in the end of life field that I think a webinar may be in order. I also think more discussions about public liability and public health need to be included in all end of life work training - and so I will end with a salient point about why 'all the voices' don't matter.
False Equivalence: Why we don't need to value "all the voices" and/or 'belief'
Conspiracy theories and theorists lend themselves to hysterical insistence that everyone else is wrong, and that anyone who does not wholeheartedly agree with them is dangerous and close-minded. One of the more frequent accusations hurled at me in anger by end of life workers with a conspiracy theory axe to grind is that I am not being respectful of other people's belief, which is another way of saying that someone is upset because I have not given space or credence to what someone desperately wants to be true, so they 'believe' really, really hard. Which seems to them to be the same as having evidence.
#SpoilerAlert - belief, however powerful for an individual or group, does not consitute evidence. Including 'all the voices' is just another code for 'we will include everyone who agrees with us and shut down real change by excluding those who don't agree' - because when 'all the voices' is the catchcry, no-one is actually being heard. Echo chambers are not helpful, useful, or healthy, as belief-based systems and frameworks stifle any growth or genuine reflection.
Ultimately, someone's belief may lead to wilful ignorance in terms of conspiracy theories, but that does not mean I, or anyone else, has to treat that belief as important or worthy of time and consideration; personal beliefs belong inside personal heads. The false equivalence is when we provide a platform of equity for all perspectives, regardless of credibility or evidence in support of them. For example: flat earthers do not get any air time in my world because there is an overwhelming body of evidence that the earth is an oblate spheroid (well, 'round' in a pinch, but the flat-earth conspiracy theory is dismissed either way). I do not need to offer someone who believes the earth is flat the same consideration as I do, for example, a physicist of renown. Even with all the pressure of COVID-19 around you, I encourage you to practice critical thinking, to keep questioning, and when approached by a COVIDIOT who wants you to buy into the latest conspiracy theory please walk away. If you want to talk to someone about critical thinking and end of life work without hysteria or judgement please email me at email@example.com for an appointment. I am happy to answer your questions to the best of my ability - because despite a conspiracy theory to the contrary I am actually a real and reasonable End of Life Consultant.