The vicious cycle of conspiracy: How the spread of COVID-19 conspiracy theories deepens health inequalities – Lauren Pett

Conspiracy theories thrive in contexts of acute uncertainty, gaining traction where mundane reasons seem inadequate to explain extraordinary events.[1] They prey on fear and mistrust, and spread quickly through personal networks and non-traditional news sources. Indeed, the prominence of social media as a source of news, intertwined with turbulent global events, has provided a particularly fertile ground for conspiracy theories about all elements of COVID-19 – from questions about its existence, to doubts about vaccine safety, to outlandish theories suggesting sinister motives behind population-wide vaccination.

Conspiracy theories are defined as salacious stories referring to secret plans and malicious deeds orchestrated by an often nebulous, malevolent elite group to their private benefit and against the public interest.[2] [3] They are an enduring feature of human society and can be traced back through history, [4] long before the rise of social media. In our time, widespread distrust in the motives of authorities has created fertile ground for alternative narratives about COVID-19 to spread, particularly within black, Asian and other ethnic minority groups with historic experiences of medical discrimination. Left unaddressed, the health consequences of these types of misinformation are profound. Recent research in the UK has shown that black over-80s are half as likely as their white peers to have the COVID-19 jab,[5] and the Office for National Statistics has provided data showing that black people’s risk of dying of the disease is four times as high,[6] compared with white people.

Vaccines are well-trodden ground for conspiracy theorists. The anti-vaxxers rose to contemporary notoriety in the late 1990s through assertions of an unfounded and comprehensively debunked link between the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism.[7] However, the current vaccine hesitancy observed in black, Asian and minority ethnic groups is likely grounded in something more disturbing and universal than scare-mongering from the anti-vax movement. Building on lamentable true stories about medical experiments that abused black populations,[8] largely in the US from the mid twentieth century, mistrust in the public health establishment remains deeply embedded in these communities, making conspiracy theories more convincing and leading to negative impacts on health-seeking behaviour in a number of different ways. There is a risk that conspiracy theories rooted in past events have developed into historical narratives, blending with fact and spreading through cultural transmission.[9] In recent months, there is evidence that anti-vaxxers have opportunistically used these concerns to spread misinformation and conspiratorial narratives about the COVID-19 vaccine,[10] making the imbalance in suffering from the disease even more profound.

In addition, people from minority groups experience embedded inequality in a number of different ways and this adds to the burden of poor health. Structural racism and pervasive inequality in the UK extend beyond the criminal justice system. Health inequalities are wide-ranging, leading to significantly poorer health outcomes for black, Asian and minority communities in numerous contexts: a fact that has been highlighted during the current pandemic.[11] Not enough has changed since the publication of The Black Report[12] in the early 1980s, which highlighted social inequalities with a particular impact on black and minority groups. To give two, modern-day UK examples: black women are currently five times more likely, and women of Asian heritage twice as likely, to die in pregnancy or childbirth than white women;[13] and rates of mental illness and suicide are higher for people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.[14]

Without doubt, institutional racism and related health inequalities have deepened mistrust in government[15] and increased receptivity to damaging conspiracy theories about COVID-19 vaccines. It is a dangerous and self-fulfilling cycle: higher mortality among those who refuse the vaccine may lend further weight to their perceptions of exclusion and their distrust of the health system.

The UK government is now exploring more effective means of correcting misinformation among these communities by employing trusted community leaders and influencers. However, the challenge is not just about correcting misinformation – it calls for deeper institutional reforms to the health system. As we begin to think about building back better after the pandemic, we need to reflect on historical health injustices, build trust through honest discourse and ensure that the right pathways are in place for everyone in the UK to access effective healthcare.


[1] Leman, P. J., & Cinnirella, M. (2013). Beliefs in conspiracy theories and the need for cognitive closure. Frontiers in Psychology, 4.

[2] Brotherton, R., French, C. C., & Pickering, A. D. (2013). Measuring Belief in Conspiracy Theories: The Generic Conspiracist Beliefs Scale. Frontiers in Psychology, 4.

[3] Offit, P. A. (2010). Deadly choices: How the anti-vaccine movement threatens us all. Basic Books

[4] van Prooijen, J-W, & Douglas, K. M. (2017) Conspiracy theories as part of history: The role of societal crisis situations. Memory Studies, 10(3), 323-333.

[5] COVID Vaccine coverage report. OpenSAFELY Weekly Report 9 February 2021, University of Oxford, Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Service, DataLab, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, tpp, Emis, link.

[6] Black people four times more likely to die from COVID-19, ONS finds. News article, The Guardian 7 May 2020, link.

[7] Offit, P. A. (2010). Deadly choices: How the anti-vaccine movement threatens us all. Basic Books

[8] Black people have a long history of poor medical treatment – no wonder many are hesitant to take COVID vaccines. The Conversation, Winston Morgan, University of East London, web News article, 29 November 2020, link.

[9] van Prooijen, J-W, & Douglas, K. M. (2017) Conspiracy theories as part of history: The role of societal crisis situations. Memory Studies, 10(3), 323-333.

[10] Anti-vaxxers are weaponising the vaccine hesitancy of Back communities. The Conversation, web News article, Winston Morgan, University of East London, 26 January 2021, link.

[11] Coronovirus: inequalities in healthcare may explain worse outcomes for BAME people. The Conversation, web News article, Steve Schifferes, City, University of London, 11 November 2020, link.

[12] Gray, A., M. (1982) Inequalities in health. The Black Report: a summary and comment. International Journal of Health Service, 12(3): 349-80, link.

[13] Saving Lives, Improving Mother’s Care: Lessons learned to inform maternity care from the UK and Ireland Confidential Enquiries into Maternal Deaths and Morbidity 2015-17. MBRRACE-UK. November 2019, link.

[14] Rethink mental illness. Advice and information website service, link.

[15] Covid vaccine: 72% of black people unlikely to have jab, UK survey finds. News article, 16 Jan 2021, The Guardian, link.

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