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Outbreak Deja Vu: Rumor, Conspiracies, Folklore Link Disease Narratives

This article is more than 5 years old.

By Jon D. Lee
Guest Contributor

Nearly five years ago, during the peak of the H1N1 — swine flu — pandemic, a joke appeared on the Internet based on the nursery rhyme “This Little Piggy.”

The joke (clearly for public health insiders) was intended to comment on the similarities between swine flu and avian flu, and it concluded this way:

And this little piggy went “cough, sneeze” and the whole world’s media went mad over the imminent destruction of the human race, and every journalist found out that they didn’t have to do too much work if they just did “Find ‘bird’, replace with ‘swine’” on all their saved articles from a year ago, er, all the way home.

The punch line makes an important point about the recycling of stories. But for all of its insight into this phenomenon, the joke doesn’t end up taking the lesson far enough.

Because it’s not just the media that recycles stories — it’s all of us.

In "An Epidemic of Rumors: How Stories Shape Our Perceptions of Disease," I conducted an extensive study of the narratives — the rumors, legends, conspiracy theories, bits of gossip, etc. — that circulated during the H1N1, SARS and AIDS pandemics.

The results showed that all three pandemics were rife with rumors that, though created decades apart, had striking similarities. Every disease had a story claiming a government conspiracy or cover-up. Every disease had a list of surefire cures and treatments “they” don’t want you to know about. Every disease had false and inaccurate stories about where it had spread to and who was infected.

But mostly, and perhaps most damaging, every disease had stories about who was ultimately to blame, and these usually devolved into racism and xenophobia with terrifying rapidity. AIDS was blamed on homosexuals, SARS was blamed on the Chinese, H1N1 was blamed on Latinos. And the members of those groups were stigmatized and treated differently as a consequence.

One SARS story came from a woman in Toronto, Canada, who said when her Chinese roommate (who did not have the disease) “was on the subway...she’d describe several times sitting down beside somebody and having them get up and move over.” I collected similar stories from Latinos during H1N1. And anyone who lived through the ’80s will remember the stories about AIDS being a punishment from God against the gay community.

When I began the research for this book, I was surprised at the amount of narrative repetition I uncovered. But I ultimately concluded that such repetition makes sense: When confronted with an unfamiliar disease, it seems only logical that, consciously or unconsciously, we return to the narratives of familiar diseases to learn how to cope with the unfamiliar.

Now a new disease has captured our attention: Ebola. The media coverage is everywhere, as is the public panic — there have been at least 5,000 Ebola false alarms since late September. The disease has even become so important that some political pundits claim that November’s general elections may be won by whichever party appears to be better controlling (or perhaps just assuaging the public’s fear about) the outbreak.

When I wrote "An Epidemic of Rumors," the current Ebola epidemic hadn’t even begun. But the similarities I found between the AIDS, SARS and H1N1 narratives are quickly mapping themselves onto this new disease, and the stories people are telling are unsurprisingly familiar.

Consider the conspiracy theories alone. In August and September of this year, a rumor spread throughout Nigeria blaming Europe and America for creating the disease. A similar story from Liberia specifically points its finger at the U.S. Department of Defense for funding Ebola trials on humans.

Closer to home, both right-wing radio talk show hosts Michael Savage and Rush Limbaugh have claimed on air that President Obama is deliberately encouraging the outbreak — Savage because it’s part of Obama’s “war on white people”, and Limbaugh because Obama is getting back at Americans for their history of slavery. Right-wing commentator Morgan Brittany takes the discussion one step further by claiming that Obama is attempting to create a national panic so that he can declare martial law, seize Americans’ guns, and control the population.

These stories bear a marked resemblance to the rumors that Saddam Hussein and/or the New World Order created SARS to decimate and control the world, that the spread of H1N1 was similarly encouraged by the government to control the population, and that the AIDS virus was purposely introduced into the gay community to control its spread.

Another Ebola conspiracy theory states that the outbreak is being encouraged by pharmaceutical companies as a money-making scheme, as well as a smokescreen to cover up new studies which “prove” that the MMR vaccine causes autism. At least the former claim was also made during H1N1, with rumors that then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was stimulating the outbreak because of his status as the former CEO of Gilead, producer of a key H1N1 vaccine.

At the heart of many of these conspiracy theories, as well as other Ebola rumors, are deep-seated overtones of racism and blame. The Obama-Ebola links alone providing overwhelming evidence of this, but it extends far beyond the president. Similar racist narratives have peppered almost every major modern outbreak: in September 2012, when the World Health Organization first identified the MERS-CoV outbreak in Saudi Arabia, one of the first CNN news articles detailing the story had as its opening reader comment, “More proof that Muslims are dirty people ruining the planet.” And I collected dozens of SARS narratives warning people to “Avoid going to ASIAN areas!!!”

Of course, what underlies all of these narratives, regardless of the disease, is a single emotion: fear. It’s fear that drives the creation of these stories, fear that leads to their continued circulation, and fear that will bring around the next batch of rumors for the next big outbreak, whatever that happens to be.

And I’ll bet those rumors are going to be eerily familiar as well.

Jon D. Lee has a Ph.D. in folklore, and lectures at Suffolk University and Stonehill College.

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