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The Doctors and Nurses Buying Into Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories

As coronavirus raises more and more questions — and becomes more and more politicized — some medical professionals are straying far from the science for answers

Carole Lieberman believes the coronavirus is an agent of bioterrorism from the Chinese Communist Party, rather than a random mutation in a bat from a Wuhan market. She also thinks that Anthony Fauci is part of a plot to lock everyone in their homes until Big Pharma, Bill Gates and Fauci himself can profit from a vaccine. And she is fairly certain that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio intentionally sent coronavirus-positive patients into nursing homes to get other elderly residents sick. “Everyone knows nursing homes aren’t equipped to take care of patients with COVID,” she insists. “It was murder.”

But unlike other like-minded conspiracy theorists, who, according to research, tend to be less educated, Lieberman is a trained medical doctor and licensed psychiatrist. In fact, she’s a diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, and previously served as a member of the clinical faculty at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute. To that end, throughout the pandemic, Lieberman has continued to see psychiatric patients on Zoom and over the phone. During these sessions, occasionally her personal opinions come up. “I will sometimes offer my views — more as interesting questions to talk about than my trying to impose my views,” she says.

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To be clear: Lieberman is wrong. There is no evidence that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was human-made in a lab and released intentionally, and scientists have repeatedly stressed that they “do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible,” as one team of researchers recently reported in the journal Nature Medicine. As for the nursing home theory, the move to require such facilities to take in new patients with coronavirus was technically in line with a federal memorandum from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Plenty of critics thought the buck should have stopped with Cuomo and de Blasio regardless, but that’s a far cry from a conspiracy to commit murder. 

On the surface, it might appear as if Lieberman is hawking conspiracy theories to get further into the spotlight. (She describes herself on her website as a “media psychiatrist,” or a TV doctor, having served as an expert witness during numerous trials, including the “Jenny Jones Talk Show Murder Trial,” which she authored a book about.) After all, TV personalities like FOX News medical contributor Janette Nesheiwat have said that President Trump was “smart” for taking hydroxychloroquine as a “prophylactic preventative measure” after members of his administration tested positive for the coronavirus. (Lieberman also believes hydroxychloroquine is a perfectly good cure for COVID-19.) And, of course, there have been plenty of anti-vaccine props making the rounds online such as Shiva Ayyadurai and Judy Mikovits from Plandemic, both scientists and not medical doctors, who have fanned the #FireFauci claims and stoked Big Pharma fears. 

But the thing is, it’s not just the TV doctors who are getting red-pilled. Ivette C. Lozano, a Dallas-based surgeon with more than 20 years experience, gave a speech in Dealey Plaza on March 9th about her success treating coronavirus patients with hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin (a Z-pak). (Once again, to be perfectly clear, a review of all the current controlled studies on hydroxychloroquine revealed no benefit for COVID-19 patients and some risk for people with a history of heart arrhythmias.)

Meanwhile, Steven, an emergency room nurse in Colorado, thinks it’s safe to reopen the country, and doesn’t see the need for mass testing — especially asymptomatic people, because “treatment is symptomatic.” “We don’t need the tests anymore because the treatment for everyone’s the same: quarantine,” Steven tells me, arguing that tests should only be used for critically ill patients testing experimental treatments to see if those clinical trials are effective. “Wanting to have a test because you want to know is just entitlement.”

Similarly, Margaret, a nurse at a state prison in New Jersey, believes the entire pandemic is an exaggerated, media-generated crisis designed to make Trump look bad before re-election. “It doesn’t matter who’s in office, the numbers would be the same,” she says. “This is just the liberal media leaning into their gotcha moment, but it’s not as bad as they’re making it out to be.” (The latest “no-so-bad” American numbers: An alarmingly high 1.8 million cases and nearly 108,000 deaths.)

Overall, medical conspiracies are relatively common among anti-vaxxers, intactivists and other groups radicalized against Big Pharma. But doctors and nurses have traditionally been seen as members of the establishment — and anything but tinfoil-hat-wearing skeptics, explains Gabriel Andrade, a professor of ethics and behavioral sciences at Ajman University in the United Arab Emirates​. He recently authored a paper about medical conspiracies during the pandemic and found that, generally speaking, “doctors and nurses don’t typically believe these things.” 

He mainly dismisses medical professionals’ potential as conspiracy theorists on the grounds of their higher education (as was mentioned earlier). “When you accept wild conspiracy theories, you lack critical thinking. The more educated you are, the stronger your critical thinking skills,” he tells me. 

But just like the doctors and nurses in anti-vaxx circles, there are exceptions to this rule. “There are a growing number of medical professionals who have become frustrated by how political everything has been in regard to coronavirus,” Lieberman says. “To the point of telling doctors how to practice medicine, what medications to prescribe, how to think and so on. Many have had enough.” 

Interestingly, education isn’t the only thing that predicts a belief in conspiracy theory; social disenfranchisement does as well. And for Trump supporters who think facemasks, social distancing and sheltering-in-place are a threat to their liberties, a perceived sense of victimhood is what draws them into conspiracies, no matter how many advanced degrees they’ve amassed. 

Needless to say, there are many potential consequences to the politicalization of conspiracy theories, not just in medical care, but public health more broadly. “If a vaccine is found, some people will probably be reluctant to take it, thinking that if Big Pharma manufactured the virus in the first place….” Andrade says. Plus, he adds, “Since this conspiracy-mongering negatively affects Chinese-American relations, it makes it more unlikely that these two superpowers will work together to come up with a cure or a vaccine.” It goes without saying, too, that the more doctors and nurses legitimize disinformation, the more lethal it becomes.

And one last time, that’s exactly what they’re spreading — disinformation. Because while it’s true that there are many things we don’t know about coronavirus, “on the basis of what we do know, we ought to be satisfied with the version that scientists are providing,” Andrade explains. To say that this is a conspiracy by Big Pharma, the Chinese or whoever else leaves big explanatory gaps. How could so many insiders in the conspiracy remain silent? How come smallpox was a natural phenomenon but coronavirus isn’t?”

As for what to do about doctors, nurses, and really, anyone who believes this bullshit, Andrade doesn’t recommend rattling off more studies or data points to convince them; if anything, he prescribes the exact opposite — empathy (even if that means forgetting for a second which one of you went to med school). “Instead of just bashing Trump supporters as dumb assholes who believe wild conspiracy theories,” he says, “liberal and intellectual elites ought to try to persuade them and bring them over to the side of reason by engaging with them.”