Ling Shepherd: My life with a Covid-19 denialist

Many of us have entertained some kind of coronavirus conspiracy in the last year. I confess that I found myself down coconut bread and 5G internet rabbit holes. It is hard to escape it –  we live on the internet after all. My dilemma however is that I live with someone that proclaims daily the coronavirus is not real, and we are overreacting. I came of age in a time when HIV/AIDS was managed to our nation’s detriment. The highest echelons of government told us HIV does not cause Aids. There was too much conspiracy talk among decision makers when hard facts could have prevented the deaths of some half a million people. 

Of course I can see the possibility in a manufactured virus being used for biological warfare. There is however no proof that this particular virus was deliberately unleashed on the world as an act of war. And I can see how turmoil has made for particularly lucrative business – On this point can I just say that it really is not helping to be bombarded with Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk’s net worth in the wake of the pandemic. 

Back to the conspiracies though, I think it is human nature to rationalise a crisis even with fantastical conclusions. I get it. 

Misinformation however is an unfortunate by-product of a world in crisis. Lockdown forced us into relying on our devices more than usual. We have seen the emergence of what we call “WhatsApp Aunties” –  adults over 40 who while away their day by forwarding messages. Now this is a good way to pass the time, and catch up with people with whom you would usually be socialising. But it is dangerous. A large portion of South Africans are using WhatsApp as their primary communication tool. It is cheap and easy to use. It is also a breeding ground for anti-vaccination rhetoric and conspiracy mongering.

The denialist I live with was born after the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1920. She has lived through World War Two, the legal establishment of Apartheid and perhaps one of the most defining moments of segregation in south Africa – the Group Areas Act. She is not averse to struggle and having to hustle in life. I do not know her whole life story yet, but she is convinced the coronavirus is just an “aggravated” flu and our reactions cause too much panic. I agree with her about the panic.  Everyone I have spoken to that has recovered form Covid-19 says the first thing to do is not panic. Easier said than done, but we know you can recover better with a heart rate that is not elevated. She has gone on to opine almost daily that “It is China’s fault”, and people must stop eating “bats”. It is not the sheer audacity of saying this almost daily but the complete belief in this that upsets me – especially when we face a deluge of funeral notices on our social media feeds. This is real, it is not a simulation 

But it has been a rollercoaster of ridiculousness. Coupled with the insensitivity toward those grieving the loss of people to the coronavirus, it is also just utterly ridiculous to deny the impact of Covid-19. Our healthcare system is under enormous pressure. We are in a constant battle against gender-based violence and dealing with one of our highest unemployment rates ever.  She has taught me one thing and continues to each day with denialism; hard facts are what we need, and what will get us through this pandemic. Many truths can co-exist. I am still sceptical of Western medicine, especially with Africa has been a convenient testing ground without reaping the benefits. I am also not averse to the Covid-19 vaccine or vaccination in general. I am not against traditional medicine, I witnessed a family member rely completely on herbal medication to improve her vascular problems. She could not walk for 8 months, and now she has the use of both her legs. But it cannot be the sole remedy. Perhaps now is the time to start bridging the gap with Western and traditional medicine. Start studying the herbal medicine so it can be backed up by our healthcare sector.

Living with a Covid denialist is no picnic. It has forced me though to stick to the affirmations I repeat daily: Mask, sanitise, distance and don’t panic.  We need to nip denialism in its bud. We cannot erase any of the conspiracy theories, but we can counter it with hard truths. Coronavirus is real and tangible. Restricting our movements is not curtailing freedom, it is to protect us. We still have a few arduous months ahead before the vaccine roll-out. There are many things to consider like navigating life back to school and work. The road ahead is not going to be a walk in the parks we are banned from congregating in. We are navigating government corruption and our anxieties about the future. We are a nation in perpetual recovery. We cannot let our rehabilitation from this pandemic be tainted by denialism. Turn denialism around and use it to affirm the precautions we should be living by daily. We will overcome this.

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