From Conspiracy Theories to Enforcing Safety Precautions: A Story of Covid-19 in Rural California

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Author: Julia Nagai, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) alumna. Contact: nagaijuli@gmail.com

Fieldsite: My main research participant, Rosaline Evans*, lives in a small town in California known as Winkarta*. She works in Southdale*, a small town nearby. I am based in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, Japan.

*Names have been changed.

Like many others in America, Rosaline Evans thought that the coronavirus would never affect her. She thought that “it wouldn’t spread to the U.S. from China as fast as it did”. Even if it reached the U.S., it wouldn’t get to her little town of Winkarta, right? Rosaline expected that it would be like the Swine Flu or other viruses that had affected America in the past: “spoke[n] of, yet never directly affecting me or anyone around me”. After all, life in Winkarta had always been quite removed from the rest of the world.

Sunset over Southdale

When she first heard about the coronavirus, Rosaline believed that it was introduced into society by the Chinese government as a form of population control. The idea occurred to her when she remembered China’s One-Child Policy, which was in effect from 1979 to 2015. Rosaline said that now that the ban on having more than one child has been lifted, “the population [of] China is over one billion, making up a large fraction of the world’s population”. Putting these pieces of information, Rosaline started to wonder, “could Covid-19 be an attempt at population control? Was the [One Child] law supposed to be a more humane way of controlling the growing population?” To Rosaline, it made sense that the coronavirus was unleashed to kill off the weak and vulnerable in order to reduce the number of people in China.

Rosaline acknowledges that there are many “loose ends that [she] couldn’t prove” in her theory about the origins of the virus. It was based on “words and ideas not coming from doctors, [but] regular people with no studies of diseases and viruses”. Still, she thinks that it is still possible that the coronavirus is a method of population control. The virus’ spread across the globe could be an unintended consequence of trying to reduce the population in China. Alternatively, it could be a way of trying to control the world’s population.

Harding and Stewart (2003) describe “conspiracy thinking” as “a multiaccented story, an overlapping set of heteroglossic discourses that conjoins contradictory and competing reactions and outcomes in a fraught and fretful structure of feeling that yearns for and despairs of ultimate solutions”. Conspiracy theories are created in a search for an answer, however horrible that answer may be. In searching for an answer, conspiracy thinkers entertain contradictory ideas. The multifacetedness of conspiracy thinking allowed Rosaline to maintain that is possible that the origins of the coronavirus lie in population control while recognizing the loose ends in the theory. She knows that the idea that the coronavirus is a method of population control is not supported by medical experts. Still, in the conspiracy theory, there remains the possibility that there is a simple answer to the question as to why the world is experiencing so much fear and loss.

Rosaline’s willingness to engage with conspiracy theories about Covid-19 did not make the virus any less real for her. She works at a fast-food restaurant in Southdale, a town near Winkarta. She began to take the virus seriously before the lockdown, when she saw the news at work and “constantly [saw] the death toll rising every day in the U.S.” Her boss would turn the TV off because the news made customers upset. The act of her boss turning the TV off made Rosaline “realize that this is reality and by us turning off the television, we were avoiding the truth”. Soon afterwards, she saw “limits on toilet paper, water, and even Gatorade” at her local grocery store. She started reading the news more and more. The numbers of cases and deaths would rise every time she did so. Rosaline realized that she needed to protect herself.

The restaurant Rosaline works at provides masks and gloves for their employees to wear. Rosaline started wearing them before it became mandatory to do so and before anyone else did. She worried that she might spread the virus to her mother, who has diabetes and is immunocompromised. Both Rosaline and her mother stopped going out as much as possible. They even stopped going to the grocery store “almost entirely because the lines were ridiculously long and there was never anything we needed there”. The restaurant is considered an essential business, so it stayed open even after lockdowns were put in place. Rosaline received hazard pay for a while. She said that she couldn’t afford to not go to work, even though she sometimes wondered if the risk of being infected was worth it. That being said, for months, work was just about the only place Rosaline went.

Not everyone Rosaline encounters takes the virus as seriously as she does. The policy at the restaurant is to refuse service to anyone who isn’t wearing a mask. Additionally, if a customer’s mask isn’t covering their nose, employees will tell them to pull their mask up. Rosaline says that many customers are offended when they are asked to pull their masks up. On one occasion, she asked a customer to put on a mask or leave the restaurant. They refused to put on a mask and used the restaurant’s bathroom. Another time, Rosaline refused to take the order of a customer who didn’t put on a mask. He screamed and cursed at her and slammed the door on his way out. Rosalie says that she’s frustrated she has to deal with difficult customers:

“Why is it such a chore to go take one minute to walk back to your car to get a mask that could save someone else from being exposed to a virus? People have become so selfish and I get to witness it first hand because I was deemed essential.”

Rosaline thinks that some people don’t wear masks because they are selfish and don’t care about the wellbeing of others. She said that others might believe that they won’t get sick because they have a strong immune system. She thinks that the customers who choose not to wear masks don’t realize that there could be immunocompromised people in line with them. Rosaline understands the difficulties of having to take precautions and maintain social distancing. She admits that she misses going shopping in malls and travelling to big cities. Many government restrictions have been lifted and businesses are reopening in her area. She goes to stores more often than she did under lockdown but is careful. Rosaline only goes shopping if she needs something and makes sure to use sanitizers, wear a mask, and stays 6 feet away from other people. She worries that the easing of restrictions will lead to an increase in cases. Her fears are not unfounded; the county she lives in recently had a spike of roughly 500 cases. Rosaline is likely to have to continue enforcing safety precautions in her restaurant for some time to come.

The discourse around the spread of information about the coronavirus has been characterized as an “epic battle” against misinformation (Ball & Maxmen 2020). Indeed, the spread of misinformation can have serious consequences. For instance, some of the customers at Rosaline’s restaurant seem to believe that they don’t need to wear masks. If they have the virus, they could get others, including vulnerable individuals, sick. However, navigating the sea of data, rumors, and theories cannot be reduced to a black and white debate between science and conspiracy. Rosaline’s story shows that believing in conspiracy theories and following safety protocol isn’t always mutually exclusive. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to say that those who engage in conspiracy thinking want answers just as badly as scientists researching vaccines and treatments do. People who entertain conspiracy theories aren’t as different from those who champion evidence-based information as we’d like to think. Like many of us, conspiracy thinkers believe they are doing research and being critical consumers of media (Ball & Maxmen 2020). Being willing to listen, without automatically being dismissive of far fetched ideas, maybe one of the first steps to gaining trust and having healthy discussions about the validity of information.

References:

Ball, Phillip & Maxmen, Amy (2020) “The epic battle against coronavirus misinformation and conspiracy theories”, Nature 581, 271-374 doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-01452-z

Harding, Susan & Stewart, Kathleen (2003) “Anxieties of Influence: Conspiracy Theory and Therapeutic Culture in Millenial America” in Transparency and Conspiracy: Ethnographies of Suspicion in the New World Order 258-268, Duke University Press