The COVID story of a “lab leak” is clearly not going to go away any time soon. The theory that the pandemic began with an accidental release of the virus from a laboratory in Wuhan is repeating itself like clockwork – most recently in a report from the Senate Republicans this week in the US.
Earlier this year, the US Department of Energy and the FBI supported the same theory. It’s a very modern story, but as medievalists we can tell you we’ve been here before and we should be wary of simple reproaches.
The lab leak theory remains one legitimate hypothesis to investigate. Yet much of the discussion surrounding it shows evidence of the “contagion effect” of magical thinking – the belief that a visible effect has somehow been tainted by a hidden essence related to its origin.
The fears still swirling in conservative media echo the escalating allegations of source poisoning in medieval Europe. These exploded into mass violence in the mid-14th century and survive in later legends about witches’ ability to concoct poisonous agents.
In an age of antibiotics and scientific explanations, we like to think of ourselves as more advanced than our ancestors. But our research into the early history of conspiracy theories and xenophobia tells a more complicated story about how magical thinking continues to shape our response to disasters like the pandemic.
Poisonous powders and pests
Fear of contagion often stems from fears about unknown or poorly understood aspects of illness. Who among us has never felt compelled to disinfect our groceries or mail during the first months of the pandemic?
Our current study, “The First Era of Fake News: Witch-Hunting, Antisemitism and Islamophobia,” examines how myths that emerged in the Middle Ages are still used to justify modern atrocities. It shows how the contagion effect also leads to scapegoats and misattributions of blame. The threat of disease is layered on suspicious “others” – such as Jews in the Middle Ages or Chinese laboratories today.
When Jews were accused of poisoning wells to cause plague outbreaks in 1348-49, the “contamination” associated with it was both literal and figurative. Jews were accused make poisonous powders of spiders, toads and human remains – the ingredients form a running list of items that evoke disgust and fear of infection.
Read more: COVID-19: why the lab leak theory is back despite little new evidence
But Jews were also considered suspicious simply because they were Jewish—exotic religious outsiders who might have connections with fellow believers in other cities, or who might be traveling far from home. It was feared that Jews would contaminate Christian communities through their presence, and medieval preachers were not shy about saying so.
We can call this kind of contagion “magical” – fear that simple contact with a distrustful outsider somehow makes us vulnerable to influences or activities we don’t understand. We must be careful: in the case of high poisoning allegations, those fears led to the mass slaughter of Jewish communities in Central Europe.
Individual Jews were tortured into extensive confessions of guilt and then murdered along with their community. They were blamed for the spread and devastation of the plague. The effect of contagion easily convinced medieval Christians that a terrible disease must arise in people already considered suspect.
Conspiracy and Christianity
There are similar fears of magical contagion in theories of the lab leak as the origin of the pandemic. Guilt is a powerful motivator. We are still influenced by the idea that a specific agency must be responsible, rather than unpredictable processes of virus mutation.
Even China has embraced this logic, with various suggestions about the virus popping up somewhere (everywhere) outside its borders. The contagion effect has also been manipulated for political advantage. Donald Trump’s early fear mongering about a “China virus” was a convenient distraction from his own administration’s failures in the early days of the pandemic.
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Like medieval civic leaders, it was easier for some politicians to appease people’s anger and fear with stories of guilt than by acknowledging failures and unknowns.
There are both bad and good reasons to examine the lab leak hypothesis. It’s a bad reason to use the theory as a way to target and punish enemies. Likewise the a priori assumption that nefarious intent lies somewhere behind every major event, a cornerstone of conspiratorial thinking, both ancient and modern.
We must be alert to this way of thinking. It tends to kill people. When Jews were accused of poisoning wells in medieval Europe, they were believed by many to do this “to destroy and exterminate the whole Christian religion”.
Read more: China has only now revealed crucial data on the origins of COVID-19. Earlier disclosure may have saved us 3 years of political wrangling
Viral magical thinking
In some political circles, the lab leak theory operates as the thin edge of a similar civilizational struggle, with the Chinese as the villains secretly working on various plans to dominate or destroy Western democracies.
Such allegations attempt to impose coherence on an extremely uncertain situation and suggest a reassuring story of clear cause and effect rather than random chance.
Read more: From UFOs to COVID conspiracy theories, we all grapple with the ‘truth out there’
China’s empowered approach to information sharing does not help to allay suspicion. In the eyes of proponents of the lab leak theory, the desire to conceal information suggests something more nefarious than a simple desire to avoid blame.
But embracing an argument based on a fabric of circumstantial evidence is also part of the conspiracy theory’s playbook: magical thinking enters the gray zone of unanswered questions to create elaborate narratives of false reassurance.
Some questions about the origins of COVID-19 may never be answered. For many, this is an indigestible idea. But if we want to intervene in this historical pattern of overreaction, conspiracy theories and blame, we must be honest about the limits of our knowledge.