Covid Conspiracy theorists: A spotters' guide
Categorising Covid conspiracy theorists. You can do this at Thanksgiving, but don't tell your antivax relatives.
There’s a natural tendency to throw everyone who has… unconventional beliefs about Covid into the same basket: antivaxxers, Covid deniers, Covidiots.
But this lazy grouping makes it harder to separate the convinceable from the hardliners, the irrational from the incorrect but reasonable. There’s a difference between someone who thinks Covid is caused by 5G phone signals and a person who’s just nervous about new medicines. An antivaxxer who gets experimental Covid treatments in the ICU may well be an idiot but he isn’t necessarily a hypocrite.
Below, then, is a spotter’s guide to different sorts of beliefs in the Covid-sceptic/Antivax world. There isn’t even really a neat term that encompasses all these beliefs, and maybe there shouldn’t be. But what unifies them is scepticism or opposition to the mainstream scientific understanding of the virus, the disease and interventions, whether medical or non-pharmaceutical, to control it.
If you’re an American having a big family Thanksgiving meal, you can try to put your Covid Conspiracist family members into one or more of these categories below. Though I recommend doing this in your head, not publicly at the dinner table.
The Spotter’s Guide to Covid Conspiracy Theorists
Covid-19 is fake
These people believe that there is no disease; Covid-19 is fake, and people aren’t really getting sick from it.
This claim takes a few forms. A common example is the people who insist that Covid just rebranded influenza or a cold virus. When they say “it’s just the flu”, they mean it literally. This one started very early: Rush Limbaugh claimed Covid-19 was the common cold in Febuary 2020. More generally, Donald Trump repeatedly claimed Covid was a Democrat hoax throughout 2020.
Supporters of this conspiracy theory find ‘proof’ in the virtual disappearance of flu in winter 2020/21 (the rest of us understood that social distancing combated flu too).
In spring 2020, the Fake crowd tried to prove that Covid wards at hospitals were secretly empty.
This theory is particularly dangerous, because infected people don’t take any measures against infecting others, don’t seek early medical care and often refuse to accept a diagnosis of Covid-19 even on their deathbeds because “it’s all made up”.
Things they say:
“How come there was no flu in 2020?”
“Where are the excess deaths? No, I don’t believe that graph is real”
“Covid’s a hoax”
“The FakeDEMic will disappear as soon as Trump leaves office… oh.”
The disease is real, but but it’s not caused by the coronavirus
Remember the 5G stuff? The people who thought Covid-19 was really caused by phone transmitters that mostly hadn’t even been built yet? They might be the most prominent version of the theory that the coronavirus isn’t real. But this one has all sorts of forms.
People who believe this don’t claim that nobody’s getting sick. On the contrary, they believe that there is a mysterious sickness that is killing millions worldwide.
Some of them don’t believe in viruses, basically. These people talk about Koch's postulates which were developed before viruses were discovered, to argue that asymptomatic infection is impossible or that the Sars-CoV-2 virus isn’t real. Often you’ll hear people ‘innocently’ ask if the virus has ever been isolated (it has) or raising doubts about PCR testing.
If a virus isn’t causing Covid, what do they blame?
5G phone signals
“Chemtrails” let out from planes
Some sort of mass poisoning
Vaccines against Covid….
The list is never-ending, though 5G was blamed early, then masks and lockdowns, and now vaccines.
Some of these are pet disease theories that predate the pandemic. People who think all diseases are caused by parasites or energy imbalances unsurprisingly believe that Covid was also caused by parasites or energy imbalances.
Because these people believe in Covid the disease, they can be genuinely very scared of getting sick themselves, and take steps to avoid whatever they believe causes it. They tend to oppose Covid restrictions, masking and vaccines because they think they provide no benefit, but they might try to ‘save’ the rest of us by warning about the real danger.
Things they say:
“How come Covid cases went up in every country after they started vaccinating?”
“Nobody’s ever isolated the Covid Virus”
“How can the coronavirus be real if it doesn’t follow Koch’s Postulates?”
“There’s no such thing as asymptomatic disease for any illness ever, that’s impossible”
“We’ve polluted the world too much and Covid is nature’s response”
“Let’s burn down a 5G transmitter tower”
Covid is real but it’s not very dangerous
The most prominent advocate for the idea that Covid isn’t all that bad was Donald Trump, who as President consistently claimed that Covid was less dangerous than the flu. But I think it’s probably one of the more common positions, and the people who hold it aren’t all in conspiracy theory territory, though many end up believing in other conspiracy theories in an attempt to explain why the world is reacting how it is to a disease that isn’t dangerous.
Advocates of this position misuse or misunderstand statistics on Covid-19’s Case Fatality Rate and Infection Fatality Rate, and constantly stress that Covid has a “ more than a 99% survival rate” and is “less dangerous than the flu”, not understanding that:
for every age group apart from kids, Covid-19 is much more deadly than the flu.
the coronavirus, especially now with the Delta and AY4.2 variants, is much more infectious than the flu so you’re much more likely to catch it in the first place
How do these people explain the high number of Covid deaths? Many insist that the numbers are deliberately manipulated and inflated and that most deaths were people who died of other causes while they happened to have Covid. Of course, in reality nobody dies ‘of Covid’ just like nobody dies ‘of AIDS’ — they die of pneumonia, respiratory failure, organ failure, embolisms and all the stuff that Covid causes in the body.
In MAGA-world, people referred to Covid as “the Coff” as a way of emphasising how safe it is.
People who think Covid isn’t dangerous oppose restrictions, especially lockdowns because “Lockdowns kill”. False claims of a big surge of lockdown suicides (in reality, many countries saw suicides decline during lockdowns) were hyped up, and the real but very rare severe vaccine side effects were claimed to be unjustifiable because the virus isn’t harmful in the first place.
There’s a more limited (and more justifiable) version of this this position, too: Covid is dangerous but if you’re old or unwell.
This isn’t completely untrue, of course, because age is the biggest risk factor for severe Covid-19. Other major risk factors are diabetes, being morbidly obese, chronic respiratory problems and immunocompromise. People with these risk factors are at much higher risk of severe disease, hospitalisation and death.
But that doesn’t mean that Covid is safe for everyone else, especially adults in their 30s and 40s who’ve filled hospitals at different points in the pandemic. And, of course, even ‘mild’ Covid that doesn’t result in hospital admission can leave people fatigued, with lung damage and no sense of smell for months or longer.
Things they say:
They didn’t die of Covid, they died with Covid
The lockdowns are more dangerous than the virus
Why would I get vaccinated if I have more than 99% chance of surviving?
Covid was engineered by Global elites for a nefarious purpose
These people believe in Covid, but they think that it’s been deliberately created in order to justify lockdowns. Or masks. Or vaccines. Or vaccine passports. Or perhaps to reshape global power structures so that global elites can, erm… well they’re already globally elite but I suppose maybe they want to be more so. If you’ve ever heard the term “PLANdemic”, that’s basically what those people mean.
Some of them think the pandemic is supposed to get everyone used to following government instructions over lockdowns, restrictions etc in order to make us more compliant in the longer term. Some think it’s supposed to depopulate the world as part of the nefarious green agenda.
Increasingly, this belief has a lot of overlap with the most extreme antivaxxer beliefs (see below) because they imagine the vaccines are a key mechanism for delivering the supposed bad outcome.
Another key phrase here is the Great Reset, which was the theme of the 2020 World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, looking about rebuilding the economy after the pandemic. Conspiracy theorists latched onto the term and built it up in their minds as the proof that the global cabal planned the pandemic in order to allow this ‘Reset’.
Believers in this theory sometimes also think that Covid is caused by some secret cabal method (eg 5G) and not a virus, as mentioned above. They often point to anything that mentioned coronaviruses, coronavirus vaccines etc that predate the pandemic as ‘evidence’ that it was planned in advance (in reality, there were other coronaviruses already, like the closely-related SARS virus) and sometimes link this in with Bill Gates. Or the Rothschilds, because what’s a good conspiracy theory without some antisemitism?
Things they say:
“Pandemic? More like PLANdemic!”
“Resist the Great Reset!”
“Bill Gates owns the patent for the coronavirus. Suspicious, eh?”
The vaccine is fake and deliberately harmful
The most extreme anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists believe that the Covid-19 vaccines are fake, and deliberately engineered to harm people.
What’s fake about them? Well, that depends. Before there even were any vaccines, conspiracy theorists claimed that the vaccines would probably include a microchip to track everyone or a 5G receiver (this is not actually a thing that is possible from a tiny needle jab).
Since then, other claims have also popped up.
Some people claimed the vaccines are literally poison that will kill everyone that had one within weeks. After a few weeks they had to modify that one to a few months. Now we’re almost a year from the first vaccinations, I’m guessing the timeline will be pushed back to “a few years”.
Another common conspiracy claim is that the vaccines are a form of population control that will sterilise anyone who gets one. Again, with nearly 8 billion doses given in the last year, you’d think we would have noticed by now.
Or there’s the people who said the vaccine made them magnetic, by which they meant they could use their sweat and body grease to get a coin to stick to their faces. Or the claims that the vaccines contain Luciferase (which is harmless anyway but also isn’t actually in the vaccines). Or that they’re mostly made up of potentially toxic Graphene Oxide (they aren’t).
Another conspiracy claim says that the vaccines change people’s DNA, and that vaccinated people are literally no longer human. Videos of supposedly ‘tainted vaccine blood’ spread on social networks to try and scare people further.
Of course, conspiracy theorists denied that politicians and celebrities got vaccinated at all. They used disappearing needles, had saline shots or just lied.
This conspiracy theory intersects with others in different ways. Some of the people who think the vaccine is fake believe that the virus was deliberately engineered in order to inject everyone with fake vaccines. Some of them believe that the virus is fake, and the purpose of the fake vaccines is to give people Covid the disease.
Not all of these people are against vaccines in general. Some are lifelong antivaxxers, sure, but some will make an effort to distinguish other vaccines from the coronavirus vaccines: the old ones are good but this one is fake.
Things they say:
“Don’t take the poison shot!”
“I’m a Pureblood”
“Bill Gates and Fauci want to depopulate the planet”
“It’s not a vaccine; it’s gene therapy”
“Look, this spoon sticks to me. Oh it fell. Look now. Oops.”
The vaccines are unsafe, or don’t work
This doesn’t go quite as far as saying the vaccines are deliberately bad; but it encompasses a whole range of opinions, from understandable nerves over a new vaccine through to extreme conspiracism.
The mildest form is the people who said “well, it’s new and I want to wait a bit make sure there are no side effects”. They said mRNA vaccines, in particular, were new and scary.
A LOT of those people have since decided to get vaccinated, now that billions of others have now been safely jabbed. But there are still some holdouts, people who worry about some unknown long term side effect. In reality, the side effects of all vaccines pretty much show up within a few weeks of vaccination. Some of these people might still choose to get vaccinated in time. Some will never be convinced.
Next up are the people who believe there the vaccines cause common, severe side effects that the authorities are covering up. They claim every death of a celebrity or athlete is really a vaccine fatality, and that millions of vaccine deaths are being hidden or even reclassified as Covid deaths. Or they claim it causes infertility, but now they’ve seen vaccinated people getting pregnant and having kids, they say it makes your kids infertile (which, of course, won’t be proven false for a long time).
Even wilder is the ‘shedding’ theory — that vaccinated people can ‘infect’ others with some kind of vaccine cooties. One Florida school demanded that students stay home for 30 days after vaccination for fear of them hurting others. Some employers still refuse to hire vaccinated people.
Then there are the people who say that vaccines just don’t work, or barely work. These people sometimes refuse to call them vaccines because “real vaccines make you completely immune from a disease forever” or “you can still catch it so it’s pointless”. Instead they call them injections, therapeutic injections, experimental injections…. stuff like that. This claim is pretty mainstream in parts of US Republican politics right now.
In reality, many vaccines give only partial protection (eg the flu jab) or need more than two doses and regular boosters (eg Tetanus). The coronavirus vaccines were extraordinarily protective for the first six months, and even after that point they make severe disease much less likely, but it looks like they probably need a third dose at around the six month mark. The good news, though, is that the third dose increases antibody levels by ten times compared to just after the second dose, and there’s some evidence that the antibodies it generates are actually more effective, too. So we probably won’t need boosters every six months.
Things they say:
“What’s the point of vaccines if you can still catch it and infect others?”
“It’s not a vaccine; it’s a therapeutic injection”
“How come there’s still Covid if so many people are vaccinated?”
“Four shots, five shots, six shots… you sheep will do whatever they tell you to.”
“I’m waiting 50 years in case the vaccines have long-term side effects”
“I’m waiting until it’s FDA approved… oh it is? Well the approval was politically motivated, I’m still not convinced.”
Covid is real and deadly, but it has a simple cure
Vitamin C. Chloroquine. Hydroxychloroquine. Zinc. Ivermectin. Quinine. These are just a few of the supposed miracle cures for Covid-19 that doctors, big Pharma and the authorities are covering up for whatever reason.
Mostly, the miracle cure people believe that there’s no need to get vaccinated, and in fact vaccinations are a scam by Big Pharma to sell governments something nobody needs. Just pop an Ivermectin pill if you get Covid. Or maybe once a week to prevent Covid.
Again, this one was pushed heavily by Donald Trump, who particularly promoted Hydroxychloroquine as the cure for Covid in 2020. But it’s part of a longer Alternative Medicine tradition that believes that all diseases can be cured easily.
At various points in the pandemic, some of these treatments looked at least plausible. Low-powered studies seemed to show they worked. Then loads of research time was devoted to bigger trials which showed they did nothing. Several studies on Ivermectin from around the world turned out to be manipulated or faked to make it seem like the drug helped.
Millions of people take HCQ or Ivermectin for Covid. Here’s one personal account from the Trump forum TheDonald":
Notice what the doctors said: take Tylenol, drink fluids. In other words, do nothing. But instead, they took a powerful anti-parasitic drug and it did the SAME as nothing. So they decide it must have worked.
Things they say:
“Just get a vitamin D shot and you’re safe.”
“Big Pharma doesn’t want us to know about HCQ because it wants to sell vaccines”
“Don’t call it horse dewormer, it’s a respectable anti-parasitic drug used by millions of humans worldwide… OK, my bottle does have a picture of a horse on it, but still.”
“I took Ivermectin once and I didn’t die of Covid yet so it works.”
“The study used HCQ wrong. It doesn’t work unless you take it with zinc and vitamin C, exactly 14 hours after you got sick, under a full moon.”
The people who are buying out stocks of horse dewormer to take large unprescribed doses Ivermectin don’t think that Covid’s a hoax. On the contrary, they’re terrified.
There are vaccinated people who never leave the house unmasked taking Ivermectin. There are unvaccinated people who are freaked out by mRNA but insist on being given experimental monoclonal antibodies for even mild Covid because they know it’s dangerous.
There are people who think Covid isn’t really very dangerous, but also aren’t bothered by vaccines: mandate them to get a shot and they’ll do it because they just don’t care either way.
All of this is to say that people are complicated. The coronavirus pandemic is the biggest, most impactful global event since the Second World War. Of course people are confused, especially with constantly developing science, constantly changing statistics, constantly evolving guidance. Of course some have fallen into some wild conspiracy theories, whether to reassure themselves or to make sense of a crazy, scary new world.
Understanding what sort of beliefs people have, and where they come from, can help in beginning to help them towards them the truth. And sometimes it can show you that there’s no point engaging; you’re never going to convince your cousin that Covid is caused by a virus and not genetically-modified 5G towers.
Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers.
Have I missed any categories out altogether? Got anything wrong? Let me know in the comments.
Thanks for the Thanksgiving dinner guide.
Part of the problem during this pandemic is poor messaging by CDC and FDA. Conflicting information, changing information and withholding information has eroded trust in our public health agencies. So some people are leery, scared and confused.
You missed this, although I don't believe it's a conspiracy, but rather a reasonable view - if mRNA vaccines are so safe, then why must I sign a waiver of rights to get one?
We still don't know the long term effects of the mRNA vaccine, and we also don't know how effective it is over the long term. Isn't it possible that the vaccine can make people more susceptible to some mutation of Covid later on? Isn't it also possible that getting Covid after being vaccinated can lead to a less effective immune response in the future (i.e., less robust than having had Covid without having had a vaccine)?
Still waiting for the Novavax vaccine. Why isn't it yet available in the US?
Too many Pfizer and Moderna executives are involved in setting government policy.