Op-Ed: Be Wary of COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories


Dr. Joseph DeJames
Dr. Joseph DeJames

Recently, it seems that the world is rife with weird explanations that are created as an interpretation and explanation for whatever subject that piques someone’s interest. Although many times these are humorous and ridiculous, they seem to have taken on a life of their own and have influenced the feeling and thinking of millions, if not billions, worldwide.

Conspiracy theories usually are rooted in trying to explain things we do not understand yet. They also arise as alternative interpretations that go beyond the face value of things. There seems to be a premise that accepted explanation is false. Furthermore, not only is the accepted explanation false, but it’s also nefarious and evil.

Akin to stereotypes, conspiracy theories may have a kernel of truth to them. Usually, there is some initial fact that is true. What is interesting is how a whole narrative is spun around this fact. Even more perplexing and concerning is how they seem to take on a life of their own and continue to mutate and propagate to higher levels of complexity while more people believe in them.

A current example is how conspiracy theories have arisen with regard to the Covid-19 vaccine. Let us remember that there are many people who are anti vaccinations, including some doctors. This form of thinking usually relates to where a vaccination is linked to harm. Can vaccines cause harm? Of course, they can. When analyzed, the risk from vaccines pales in comparison to the benefits of vaccinating against disease. However, in a vaccine conspiracy theory, the risk is blown way out of proportion and anecdotal instances of harm are sensationalized and marketed in an attempt to say all vaccines are evil.

Recently, there was much ado on social media on how the Covid-19 vaccine was going to be experimentally used on U.S. Virgin Islanders. This resulted from a “60 Minutes” broadcast where it was mentioned that the USVI does not have the storage and transport ability to distribute the vaccine. From a logical standpoint, this is a hurdle that can be overcome. However, to make the leap to say that U.S. Virgin Islanders will be guinea pigs for the vaccine is not very clear thinking.

To be transparent, the history of medicine has many cases where African-Americans were used in despicable fashion by the medical establishment. The Tuskegee Experiment occurred from 1932-1972 when African-American men who had syphilis were not treated for it in an effort to see how the disease would progress if untreated. Considered the ‘father’ of modern gynecology, J. Marion Sims developed experimental surgical techniques on enslaved Black women without anesthesia. In Puerto Rico, uninformed, forced sterilization took place between the 1930s – 1960s as a method of population control.

These undisputed facts serve as the underpinning for mistrust in the healthcare system as it relates to persons of color and minorities. It is inevitable that health measures will be looked at with suspicion. The Covid-19 vaccine is easy prey for conspiracy theorizing.  There is added stress from the pandemic. It is being developed more quickly than other vaccines.

However, this vaccination is not meant solely for persons of color and minorities. It was tested on about 44,000 people of varying demographics. Local health officials who have spent many years developing expertise in infectious diseases and public health measures are promoting the use of the vaccine when it comes available. These health officials are persons of color.

The funny thing about conspiracy theories is that many will say the doctors are brainwashed by the pharmaceutical companies and that there is a huge amount of money driving vaccination. Bill Gates and Dr. Anthony Fauci are targeted as evildoers who seek to do all of us wrong by promoting vaccination. Since I still have some recollection of my philosophy courses as an undergraduate, I remember being taught the concept of proof. If you propose a theory, you must prove it. You cannot simply say that I cannot disprove it. To simplify, I cannot say that I can fly. I must prove that to you. I cannot tell you that you cannot prove that I cannot fly as proof that I can.

Many conspiracy theorists use this false argument and apply it to their theories. They say that those who promote vaccinations cannot prove that they do not have nefarious motives. In science, there is data that can be analyzed, statistics generated to evaluate risk versus benefit of whatever treatments are being considered, and avoidance of trying to fit findings into a narrative. Is there human error in science? Of course, there is. To say that all science is evil is, frankly, stupid.

Unfortunately, we live in an era where education, knowledge, training, experience, expertise and professionalism have come under attack. What has substituted science is opinion. Opinions, many times, are based on emotions rather than on factual knowledge. Our emotions are usually rooted in self-preservation. Conspiracy theories are hyped-up opinions that are self-propagating and rooted in maintaining a narrative that has a particular agenda that people want to preserve.

So, for some science, wear your mask, wash your hands, social distance, get a flu shot, and, if the Covid-19 vaccine is found to be safe and effective, get it. I will.

Editor’s note: Dr. Joseph DeJames was born in New York and grew up in Puerto Rico. He has worked at the Myrah Keating Health Center on St. John since November 2000 and is board certified in family medicine.