The dangers posed by COVID-19 conspiracy theories

In the first of a monthly blog series, Liverpool’s Director of Public Health Matt Ashton explains why conspiracy theories about coronavirus are an unhelpful and dangerous distraction.

One of the most positive yet at the same time depressing aspects of social media is that you get instant feedback on your work.

And over the last few months I have noticed an increasing toxicity around stories about coronavirus. It usually goes like this: the risks are exaggerated. It is a fake disease. Or a worldwide conspiracy to compulsorily vaccinate people.

Now, I completely understand that people are weary of hearing of the disease after it’s dominated headlines for the last nine months. Combined with the huge personal sacrifices we have all made, 2020 is a year that many of us would like to forget.

The world’s best medical and scientific brains are united in the view that this is a deadly disease

If you haven’t been personally affected by it, then the number of cases relative to the population looks fairly low. It can therefore be tempting to look for reasons to excuse not following the guidance. To try and pick holes in the science. To contrast entirely different sets of data without knowing and appreciating the context.

But remember this: the world’s best medical and scientific brains are united in the view that this is a deadly disease. That is why governments around the world have taken such monumental steps in order to slow the spread. These are not decisions that are taken lightly, given the damage it has and will continue to cause to their economies.

We have seen over the last couple of weeks a huge increase in terms of number of positive cases in Liverpoool, proving that we simply cannot be complacent. We are seeing rising hospitalisations. Merseyside is now an ‘area of concern’ and there is a chance of more intervention if the tide of cases does not slow. Let us remember that already, more than 600 people in Liverpool have died from COVID-19. “A-ha”, say the doubters, “but many of them had underlying health conditions”. Indeed they did – but try telling that to their grieving families who know that, if they hadn’t contracted it, they would still be alive. We saw how rapidly cases escalated during the first wave and we simply have to do all within our power to stop that happening again.

So this is where we are now: the age profile of those testing positive is much younger than at the peak of the pandemic, many under the age of 40. What we know of the disease is that, because younger people are at lower risk of serious illnesses if infected, this doesn’t translate into a significant increase in hospitalisations or deaths.

We saw how rapidly cases escalated during the first wave and we simply can’t risk that happening again

However, this doesn’t mean that these positive cases don’t matter. In fact, the more cases there are, the higher the risk of transmission there is, either symptomatically or asymptomatically, into older and more vulnerable populations, putting their lives at risk. That could be your mum. Or your grandad. It is at this point that we would expect hospitalisations and deaths to increase. That is what has happened in Florida, and appears to be happening in parts of Europe right now. Clearly we don’t want to get to that point, which is why we are proactively addressing any increase in cases as and when they occur and doing our utmost to contain the spread.

There is also emerging evidence about the long term health impacts from Covid infections for people of all ages. It has so far only infected a relatively small number of the overall population. Nine months ago this disease wasn’t even known about. We are still in the early stages of understanding it and looking for effective treatments. It is certainly not over and if you speak to anyone who has suffered badly from it, or has treated those who have it, you will be left in no doubt whatsoever that it is for real.

So, take it from me, we have not got over Covid. We are living with Covid. And we all need to take responsibility for our actions and modify our behaviour accordingly in order to get the economy and the city going again, but also to keep ourselves, our friends, our families, and our loved ones safe from this awful virus.