A recent report of the University of Oxford has suggested that more than one-fourth of the population in the United Kingdom believed the COVID-19 pandemic started in a Chinese laboratory as a bioweapon/bioterrorism agent. This came as a part of the massive public reaction stirred by the intractable spread of Coronavirus rapidly crossing borders, leading to economic and social disruption and an unremitting media coverage.

Renowned psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky argue that people sometimes judge the probability of events in the world by the ease with which relatable instances come to mind. When forced to make a decision, we rely on what is brought to mind quickly, which is a useful mental shortcut, commonly described as the availability heuristic. In the case of COVID-19 pandemic, these assumptions could possibly originate as a result of the global phenomenon of terrorism which took the world by storm previously.  

The wave of terrorism which is believed to have started in the 2000s in strategically important parts of the world caused almost identical repercussions which draw parallels to the widespread destruction caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Interestingly, the legal definition of terrorism found in the European Union Framework Decision on Combating Terrorism (2002) suggests figurative characteristics of the ongoing pandemic as well where it identifies terrorism as activities with the aim of “seriously intimidating a population, or; unduly compelling a government or international organisation to perform or abstain from performing any act, or; seriously destabilising or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country or an international organisation.” 

The coronavirus and terrorism have the same modus operandi as the threats unleashed by both are unseen and unpredictable exhibiting elusive traits. The spread of both the threats is transnational and the impact of their nature involve cross-border transference as an essential part of their growth.

Both are indiscriminate in selecting its victims. However, the COVID-19 pandemic is believed to be more lethal as it has surpassed the highest global terrorism death toll of 44,490 in 2014, standing at a catastrophic figure of 515,026 in less than a year, at the time of writing. 

A threat which is not bound by time and space seems to be common as well as there is always the possibility of a new wave of terrorist attacks or in the case of COVID-19 pandemic, of a new outbreak at a geographical location of the choice of only the agent causing its spread. 

The intentional spread of both terrorism and the pandemic has been declared an offence. In this regard, the United States is even expanding the definition of terrorism to encompass the intentional spread of the disease. Its Department of Justice under Attorney General William Barr released a memo on March 24, 2020, urging that, “because coronavirus appears to meet the statutory definition of a ‘biological agent’ under 18 U.S.C. § 178(1), such acts potentially could implicate the nation’s terrorism-related statute [including]§ 2332a (use of a weapon involving a biological agent).”

A cloudburst of online disinformation widely shared during the coronavirus crisis and terrorism-related events is yet another common episode which can be linked to an array of sources with altering motives, from those looking to discredit governments and deepen ethnic and religious divides, to those hoping to increase online followers. 

Both COVID-19 and terrorism are used as a political tool leading to conspiracy theories about their origin and development. The use of terms such as “Chinese virus” and “Islamic terrorism” uncovers intentional steering of public opinions in the direction of racism and xenophobia. 

However, just as the availability heuristic can produce biased and inaccurate judgments as cognitive availability can be influenced by factors, such as media coverage or vividness, that are unrelated to likelihood, frequency, or intensity of a phenomenon, any possibility of COVID-19 being a man-made threat, as compared to terrorism, has been officially denied by the WHO Emergencies Chief Michael Ryan. 

As an unseen enemy, COVID-19, of course, cannot be defeated directly on the battlefield by force or strategically as opposed to terrorism, resulting in far more casualties and socio-economic damage worldwide. 

The pandemic has emerged as a unique threat which requires a series of exceptional measures that are needed to overcome the crisis caused by it globally. This crisis demands a coordinated, decisive and inclusive human approach and the last thing to remain in quarantine should be the shared responsibility towards it which dismisses the threats it poses as some conspiracy. 

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Hamna Malik

The author is a media practitioner based in Quetta. She can be reached @hamnatweets on Twitter.

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