Historical Pandemic Conspiracies More Crackers Than Today's


As evolved and advanced as the human brain is, it sure has some dumb coping mechanisms in times of global uncertainty and distress. As COVID-19 went from something that would "just go away" to an actual medical threat, many people turned to the warm blue glow of their phones to Google what was really going on. And boy, did the internet have answers. COVID was created in a lab. Coronavirus is just a way for Big Pharma to pump us with toxic vaccines. COVID is spread by 5G and Bill Gates!

Even though these have been disproven by scientific data and plain ole common sense, many people still cling to their precious pandemic conspiracy theories like a security blanket. It feels safe to find one person or group to blame instead of facing the idea that there are things, like amoral viruses, don't have an agenda or explanation. The thing is, the corona pandemic isn't the first time that people have reached for disease conspiracies ...

"HIV Is Just A Collective Guilt Dream!"

When the AIDS crisis began, folks were understandably panicked about a lethal disease with an unknown mode of transmission. Conspiracy angles were popping up, quicker than Alex Jones looking wack-a-moles, as to where this sickness emerged from -- ranging from "divine retribution" against the gay community, nuclear fallout poisoning, and a contaminated polio vaccine. As far-fetched (and homophobic) as some of early AIDS conspiracy theories were, none of them are as wild as HIV Denialism.

Even though the international scientific community had ample, conclusive evidence linking HIV to AIDS by 1983, some people weren't entirely convinced. In 1984, psychiatrist Casper G. Schmidt proposed a different reason as to why people were suddenly dying in droves: a group fantasy. You know the set-up to your virus explainer belongs in the trash when it's basically the same as the series finale reveal of Lost. That same year, he published "The Group-Fantasy Origins of AIDS" in the Journal of Psychohistory. Schmidt, who was also gay and HIV-positive, was convinced that the gay community had taken on a collective shame, which caused "an epidemic of depression with psychogenically-reduced cell-mediated immunity." He also posited that leprosy in the Middle Ages was also all just a bunch of hysterical, guilt-ridden peasants making their own skin melt off in agonizing pain.

James Le Palmer
"You're only as unclean as you feel."

Schmidt died due to complications caused by AIDS in 1994 but was survived by his bullshit. There are still plenty of HIV/AIDS "Rethinkers" that took on the baton and managed to continue passing it on, despite the fact that all of these Rethinkers are dying. Leading to some HIV Denialists attributing their fallen comrades' demise to Big Pharma, drug addictions, or anything that wasn't the actual cause of their death.

The super sucky part about this epidemic hoax is that it doesn't just hurt those who refuse antiretroviral treatments (ARV). HIV was the cause of 330,000 premature deaths in South Africa between 2000-2005, thanks to then-South African President Thabo Mbeki, a prominent HIV Denier. He chose not to equip his country's hospitals with ARV, despite nearly 20% of the adult population having tested positive for HIV. Spoiler: It didn't go well.

1918 Spanish Flu Was Caused By Whoever Your Enemy Was

Even though the H1N1 virus that ravaged the world between 1918-1919 was called the "Spanish Flu," we don't know if that pandemic started in Spain. The deadly disease earned the moniker thanks to Spain's free media, which reported on the pandemic beginning in May 1918. Most other Western countries, including the U.S., opted to skip coverage of the emerging epidemic to keep up the morale of soldiers. You know, because not knowing about a lethal disease that could quickly spread in close quarters -- like, say, trenches -- is an excellent way to boost morale!

As the flu spread -- killing some victims within a matter of hours after showing horrifying symptoms like blue skin and liquid-filled lungs -- people panicked. Everyone had a theory as to where this virus came from, none of which revolved around germ theory. In Spain, many believed that the Germans were using their U-Boats to spread "strange bacilli, which infect people with the disease."

Historical Pandemic Conspiracies More Crackers Than Today's
Otis Historical Archives
There's some evidence the disease may have originated in Kansas, well known for its U-boat adjacency.

That's not the only way that the Germans allegedly spread their bioweapon. In some versions of the conspiracy theory, German soldiers snuck into American movie theaters and crowded places to unleash the disease, Outbreak-style. They also purportedly put the virus into aspirin tablets and put them out for sale to the unsuspecting public, which is why you should only take the loose tablets of medicine you find from parks that you trust.

But Americans weren't the only ones inventing wild H1N1 flu origin stories. In Japan, it was called the "American disease." In Germany, it was a "Russian plague," which couldn't POSSIBLY be true, since the Russians deemed it to be a "Chinese sickness." In a way, it was a little bit of every country, as the trenches allowed the virus to spread and mutate rampantly. See? We all can work together to create something.

The Cholera Pandemics Of The 19th and 20th Centuries Increased Class Tensions In Europe

The Cholera Pandemics, the last wave of which has been active since 1961 -- as in this is still infecting and killing people -- are often called the "forgotten" pandemics. The rich were able to leave the cities during the contagion's biggest waves, but poorer communities were ravaged by this intestinal disease due to cramped living and working quarters.

When the disease first emerged in the 18th century, doctors hadn't seen anything like it. They hadn't discovered the waterborne bacteria vibrio cholerae, but they knew any disease that made you have explosive diarrhea then die had to either come from "miasma," the putrid fume of rotting carcasses, or from the upper echelons of society. ("Can't wash my hands, when they're full cash, bro.") Since impoverished communities suffered the most, whispers that the rich had created a plague to get rid of the poor spread just as rampantly as the bacteria.

The rich might not have created the disease, but they did their part (as did everyone) in spreading it by dumping their waste into drinking water sources, like the Thames River in England. Some members of the upper class believed that God sent the plague to punish poor people for all of their sins. This theory went down the toilet as soon as rich people, who couldn't possibly have sinned, also started dying from the horrific disease.

SARS Was A Bioweapon Created By The US To Destroy China

Today conspiracy theories and misinformation are so commonplace that it's hard to remember a time when the internet as a simple, silly place full of dancing hamsters and mislabeled Limewire files. But even in the golden era of the internet, there were still pockets of folks who believed their governments were lying to them, especially when it came to the 2003 SARS outbreak. After learning their government downplayed the initial severity of the illness, Chinese citizens turned to proxies and the world wide web to seek out the truth. Unfortunately, like so many future wine aunts, they came across fear-mongering conspiracy theories.

In April 2003, Russian scientists Sergei Kolesnikov and Nikolai Filatov told media outlets that the SARS virus was a human-made cocktail of the measles and mumps viruses. Kolesnikovb posited that the contagion must have come from an "accidental leak" from the lab. Filatov's very scientific logic as to why SARS had to be human-made was, "There is no vaccine for this virus, its make-up is unclear, it has not been very widespread and the population is not immune to it." Filatov presumably said this while the ghost of Jonas Salk stood behind him, flipping him double birds.

Despite the fact the contagion, a novel coronavirus, had been isolated in patients suffering from the mysterious respiratory disease a couple of weeks before these theories were presented, some Chinese citizens believed it. After all, China was hit the hardest by the disease, which automatically means that it was a bioweapon created by the US and Taiwan to take down China.

Matt Gush/Shutterstock
"Keep at it, everybody! Statistically, one of these has to be a bioweapon eventually."

The Russian scientists' unfounded claims paved the way for even more detailed conspiracy theories, which blossomed online. Some believed that "the reason that no one has died in Taiwan, the United States or Japan is because they have a special medicine." Others kept their windows closed because they read that giant planes would be dumping harmful disinfectant to kill the disease. Which marked the rare time conspiracy loons might be happy about contrails.

The Russian Flu Of 1889 Could Travel Through Telegraph Wires

The COVID-19 quarantine already has people feeling like they are living in Groundhog's Day. This conspiracy theory that popped up during the first modern pandemic, the Russian Flu of 1889, all but confirms it. When St. Petersburg, Russia started reporting a fast-moving sickness in November 1889, the rest of the world brushed it off, comparing it to a cold. There was an entire ocean between America and the rest of the world, many rationalized. Is this sounding familiar yet?

This particular strain of influenza, also known as the Asiatic Flu, was the first to hit in a world full of railroad tracks and speedy, definitely not sinkable steamships. People were more and more connected, making it easier for the virus to spread.

Scientists didn't even discover viruses, let alone viruses that could infect humans, until 1892, so they didn't piece together how it was spreading. Some attempted to track it, and since telegraph wires ran right next to train tracks, they came to the most logical conclusion: the electricity in the telegraph poles was spreading the illness.

An eerily similar conspiracy theory made its social media rounds at the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, conspiracy theorists claimed that Wuhan, China, was not only the origin point of the virus, but was also one of the first cities to have 5G rolled out. Some versions of the conspiracy say the 5G causes it, others say that it speeds up the virus's ability to spread. All versions are bullshit.

Historical Pandemic Conspiracies More Crackers Than Today's
Gagarin Iurii/Shutterstock
Curveball: telegraph wires spread COVID-19.

In both instances, killer phone lines weren't even the most out-there conspiracy theories. During the 1889-1890 flu pandemic, Dr. William Gendry, claimed to isolate the cause of the illness: stardust. And not just any stardust -- special stardust that only passes through our atmosphere every 16-17 years.

The rest of the medical community rejected these wild ideas ... but, threw their own into the mix, like bird migration patterns and volcanic dust, which was somehow made sense to some doctors even though they thought the space dust theory was bonkers.

Top image: Leslie Ratliff/Shutterstock

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