Italy’s doctors face new threat: Conspiracy theories

Amid fear and anger, pandemic-skeptics are accusing doctors of lying about the virus.

Italy’s doctors face new threat: Conspiracy theories

MILAN — From “heroes” to “terrorists.” In Italy, the doctors and nurses lauded for their exhausting, dangerous work in the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic are facing a new challenge: conspiracy theories accusing them of faking the emergency.

In one social media video, two women tell the camera they are in the emergency room at Sacco Hospital in Milan, one of the hardest-hit cities in Italy. They want to prove that the ER is empty, contrary to what is being reported by journalists, who have sounded the alarm about a drastic uptick in cases.

The women go inside the building, showing viewers a calm, empty interior. Next, they walk back outside to demonstrate there are no ambulances lined up. Doctors, journalists, and politicians have been lying, they say. “They are terrorists.”  

The video, which was shared thousands of times, is a fake. The rooms it features are not located in the emergency wing of the hospital, which are in fact full. Nor does the video show the places outside the hospital where ambulances regularly wait, lined up one after another, to discharge seriously ill patients.  

Similar accusations have proliferated on Facebook, Telegram, WhatsApp and countless other mediums, where posters claim ambulances are driving around aimlessly without patients on board, or turning on their sirens simply to scare people.

Others share images of deserted hospitals and theorize that doctors fabricated the emergency so they can earn more money. Still others recommend eating avocados to keep at bay a virus they insist is no more serious than a flu.

“If during the first wave we were called heroes, now someone has changed their mind,” said Andrea Artoni, a hematologist who works in a COVID-19 ward at the Milan Polyclinic. “We are tired, fatigued and we work exhausting shifts trying to put all the energy we have into saving those who get sick.”

It’s not easy to face a second wave of the pandemic just six months after the first, he said. “To those who deny the existence of this virus, I can only say to come and take a tour in one of our departments. Come and see how our people die suffocating, alone and lucid.”

Appeals like Artoni’s fall on deaf ears among those who have ventured far enough down the rabbit hole, armed with false theories about the severity of the global pandemic.

According to the deniers, the health emergency is an invention of the media, a distorted narrative peddled by politicians and powerful people who are seeking to manipulate the world from behind the stage curtain.

“Many times, conspiracy theories arise from the difficulty in accepting the unexpected,” said Massimo Polidoro, a science writer and university professor. “For some people, it is more reassuring to invent an imaginary evil figure to fight, because it is more comforting compared to the invisible virus that you feel you cannot control.”

A recent survey found that 81 percent of Italians are finding the second lockdown harder than the first, saying they feel more anxious and distrustful of the authorities leading the pandemic response.

Luca, a 43-year-old bar owner from Milan, said he is sure that Bill Gates plans to use the COVID-19 vaccine to inoculate billions of people with a microchip that will give him power over the population as if by remote control. Asked where he heard this theory, and why he believes it, he said it came from a friend who studied in the United States and “knows everything.” They talked about it during their children’s swimming class.

Although he still follows lockdown rules and wears a face mask, Luca said he is angry and frustrated with what he describes as the government’s mishandling of the crisis. In November, he was forced to shutter his bar in compliance with the latest regulations.

It doesn’t take much for these theories to spill out from the web into real life. In Milan earlier this month a woman kicked an ambulance while a parked driver was waiting to load a COVID-19 patient and started to yell at the paramedics, calling them “terrorists,” who “go around with sirens to scare people.”

Beyond concerns of people flouting lockdown measures, there is a growing fear that fringe denialist theories could hurt the country’s long-term recovery.

“In such a fragile historical moment as the one we are experiencing, certain nonsense does nothing but fuel the distrust in institutions, in the state, in hospitals, and in who is fighting this coronavirus,” Pierpaolo Sileri, Italy’s deputy minister of health, told POLITICO.

“With the arrival of the vaccine, these theories that circulate are even more dangerous because they risk hindering adherence to vaccination,” said Sileri, who is also a surgeon.

According to new research, one in six Italians say they will not get a coronavirus vaccine if it is available next year, and 42 percent said they will wait until they better understand its effectiveness. Only roughly a third of the sample surveyed said they “would certainly get it as soon as possible.”

In a medical center in Vercelli, in the region on Piedmont, a number of patients with COVID-19 still refused to believe they were infected. Marco, a nurse from Bergamo, said he was increasingly angry about the depth of people’s denial of the disease.

“If you don’t experience the effects of the virus, I can excuse your ignorance, but when you experience that reality and see the efforts, the energy mobilized by the medical community to fight this emergency, you cannot continue to question it,” he said. “It is offensive toward us, toward those who have died and their loved ones.”

Luigi Cavanna, the head of hematology-oncology at Piacenza hospital, and one of the first doctors in Italy to go door to door to help COVID-19 patients, said part of the blame does lie with the medical establishment.

During the early months of the pandemic, doctors and virologists appearing on television to explain the rapidly evolving crisis would often contradict one another. Those mixed messages offered rich pickings for the conspiracy theorists, according to Cavanna.

He added that he’d like to have a conversation with a denier. “I’d like to hear what they have to say. I’m an oncologist and I’m used to hearing the strangest things,” he said. “I would listen to them very seriously because I think that we, the scientists, have a little fault in this too.”

Source : Politico EU More