The Covid-19 “Patient Zero” Conspiracy Theory that Ruined the Life of America’s Maatje Benassi


The Covid-19 “Patient Zero” Conspiracy Theory that Ruined the Life of America’s Maatje Benassi

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

It’s no surprise that conspiracy theorists have been thriving in this lockdown, considering that on social media, even the most flimsy claims find believers.

In the US, the pandemic has given rise to one such theory that’s put an American citizen in the limelight for all the wrong reasons.

Falsely accused of being “patient zero”, Maatje Benassi, who is employed with the US government, has been the target of conspiracy theorists in both her own country and China. Claims that she was the one to start the pandemic in China continue to spread on YouTube every day and are being propagated by the Chinese Communist Party media.

Benassi has been blamed for being Patient Zero and then bringing the coronavirus from Wuhan district to the US, and has since faced rampant harassment online.

“I want everybody to stop harassing me, because this is cyberbullying to me and it’s gone way out of hand,” Maajte recently told CNN, apparently fighting back tears.

Despite having never been tested for the coronavirus, Benassi has been accused of bringing it back with her to America last October, when she travelled to Wuhan district for the Military World Games.

Although hundreds of athletes took part in the games, Benassi’s name was singled out for an unspecified reason. It has now become commonplace on Chinese social media like Weibo and WeChat, with claims about her spreading almost as quickly as the virus itself.

As a bizarre consequence, even Italian DJ Benny Benassi has been implicated by some quarters. The DJ had to later remind journalists that “Benassi” is a very common name.

The internet has been rife with conspiracy ever since the virus first broke out, with a blame game starting between tin foil hat wearers in US and China over who spread the disease. Now, it seems, all that attention has been diverted to Benassi.

The most prominent of these conspiracy theorists has been identified as YouTuber George Webb, a 59-year-old man whose videos have nearly 1,00,000 followers and more than 27 million views.

Webb calls himself an “investigative reporter” but has so far furnished no real proof about Benassi’s involvement in spreading the contagion. Still, Maatje and her husband have been struggling to take action against the false news peddler.

While Youtube has removed a few threatening comments targeting the couple, there doesn’t seem to be much more the platform or the alleged “patient zero” can do.

“It’s really hard to hold Webb accountable,” Maatje Benassi’s husband told CNN. “Law enforcement will tell you that there’s nothing that we can do about it because we have free speech in this country. Then they say, ‘Go talk to a civil attorney,’ so we did… For folks like us, it’s just too expensive to litigate something like this.”

The incident is another reminder — along with blueprints of 5G towers and flat earths — that the internet doesn’t need much convincing to go after a theory. It’s also proof that the coronavirus pandemic is but one of the several viruses plaguing society…