Conspiracy Theories and Epidemics: Looking for the Scapegoat

Each epidemic has its share of suspicions. Pandemics have always had their well-chosen scapegoats, like the documentary « Hold up », which aims to prove a worldwide conspiracy around the Covid-19 epidemic.

A virus created to eliminate the debt of the States? Billionaires who wish to control and then annihilate the population? Doctors who seek to get rich on the backs of patients? Since the first wave of Covid-19 at the end of the winter, the propagation curve of conspiracy theories has not been reversed, far from it. In its latest annual survey on conspiracy theories, in France for example, the IFOP reported that 17% of French people believe that the virus was intentionally created in a laboratory.

Internal and external managers

« The search for scapegoats has always been constant, » explains Anne-Marie Moulin, a doctor of philosophy and CNRS researcher at the Sphere laboratory. But this need to identify those responsible has not always been motivated by conspiracy theories: « In 1720, at the time of the plague in Marseilles, local elected officials pointed the finger at the marginalized, foreign beggars whom they decided to evacuate from the city, » the researcher explains. At the time, the culprits were all found: these beggars were dirty and their behavior was immoral. But the various plague epidemics that followed one another also regularly saw a resurgence in the role of the Jews accused of poisoning the wells. « They put Christ to death so they are burdened with all the sins, » says Anne-Marie Moulin. And the enemy is sometimes both inside and outside: for example, in 1918, in the midst of the Spanish flu, and as the epidemic spread throughout Europe, there were rumors in France that the Germans had intentionally poisoned the food of the French.

1832, the cholera epidemic fomented by the wealthy

In 1952, the French historian René Baehrel examines the cholera epidemic of 1832. He published an article in the Annales review, in which he defends the idea that epidemics are accompanied by « class hatred », even if not all of them left evidence of it: « We must admit it: this feeling of hatred, before 1789, did not leave many traces: the poor did not hold the pen », he wrote. In 1832, cholera killed 100,000 people in six months and the epidemic wreaked havoc in the poorest and most unhealthy neighborhoods of the capital. The historian notes in particular in the memoirs of the politician and writer Armand de Pontmartin that this difference provoked the anger of the Parisian population who « accused the rich, noble and bourgeois, not only of not dying but of poisoning the poor, » he describes.

For Anne-Marie Moulin, this epidemic is indeed seen as a conspiracy of the elites to get rid of the poor. « Doctors are particularly targeted and this is something new in the 19th century. More numerous, more affluent, they are also more visible. They are the ones who have access to remedies, and therefore to poison. » In his Souvenirs of a doctor in Paris, Doctor Poumiès de la Siboutie describes the vigor with which his profession was then booed when a crowd of people gathered in front of the Hotel-Dieu « to massacre the doctors… ».

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