Main menu

Pages

Conspiracy theorists hounded Grant Wahl's family when he died. Now they're back: NPR

featured image


Grant Wahl’s death at the Qatar World Cup sparked conspiracy theories that persisted long after they were disproved.

Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images


hide caption

toggle subtitle

Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images


Grant Wahl’s death at the Qatar World Cup sparked conspiracy theories that persisted long after they were disproved.

Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images

On December 9, epidemiologist and infectious disease physician Céline Gounder’s phone started exploding with notifications, all relaying the same message.

Her husband of 21 years, football journalist Grant Wahl, collapsed on the other side of the world while covering the World Cup in Qatar. An hour later, Dr. Gounder learned that Wahl had died.

As news of Wahl’s death spread, so did rumors about what killed him. One theory was that the COVID vaccine was responsible. It was not, and a later autopsy showed that Wahl died of an aortic aneurysm.

Dr. Gounder gave interviews and shared her husband’s autopsy results widely, but the rumors and conspiracies persisted. And after Damar Hamlin’s on-field cardiac arrest, the anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists came back with a vengeance.

doctor gounder talked to all things considered presenter Juana Summers to share the experience of dealing with tragedy and misinformation while working as a leading voice for health during the pandemic.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

interview highlights

Why is she talking again

I really hoped that when I first put out a written statement, that I did a bunch of interviews on a bunch of different media platforms, that this would really put an end to these conspiracy theories. That by releasing the information, the people who were asking for an explanation would get their explanation, and that then I could breathe and grieve in privacy. And then, when Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest occurred during the field game, it unfortunately sparked many of these conspiracy theories again.

I started getting messages again, as I had at the beginning, from anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists who blamed not only my husband’s death, but also Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest, as well as the deaths of other young and healthy people recently in the COVID vaccines. And I felt, at that point, that I had to face these conspiracy theories head on.

Seeing her husband’s death used for misinformation

It was so exploitative to use this horrible tragedy for me and my family, to exploit it for your own ends. Misinformation is a business model – make no mistake about it. And these are people who are trying to make money, who are trying to gain social media followers or substack subscribers or some kind of social status or power. And this is really re-traumatizing not just me and my family, but other people who have been victims of this type of behavior.

I think people, especially family and close friends, were really asking questions. I was asking questions. It was very important for me to know what the cause of death was. And doing the autopsy gave me at least a partial sense of closure, of having an answer. But when people ask for investigations, I think they really need to step back and ask themselves, what are they talking about when they say investigation?


doctor Gounder wants her husband to be remembered as a powerful writer who used his journalism to fight for social justice.

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images


hide caption

toggle subtitle

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images


doctor Gounder wants her husband to be remembered as a powerful writer who used his journalism to fight for social justice.

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

An autopsy by a medical examiner and forensic scientists, which is an investigation into this type of death. And I think what some of these people are really saying when they say they want an investigation, they want the criminal justice system to turn on these unfortunate victims like myself and my family because they don’t like what we stand for — in my case, a message of public health. And they really want to punish us for what we stand for.

A particularly troubling email she received about karma

In fact, there was one out of a few hundred, as well as voicemails and other types of harassing messages. But this particular email blamed me for killing my husband because he got COVID shots and said this was karma, that I was being punished for doing this.

I believe in karma. I believe in the idea that how we behave, what we put out into the world, impacts our experience of the world. And I think if you look at the outpouring of love and support for my husband and our family after his death, I think it shows evidence of karma. And he really lived a very moral life, he believed in seeking the truth in his reporting, but he also believed in issues of social justice and fighting for human rights in his journalism. And I think that’s why so many people have reached out afterwards – because of how he lived his life.

On how she would like Grant to be remembered

My husband was an incredible writer. His sentence was lyrical. He was also a feminist. And when I say feminist, not just in terms of equality for women, but in general. And he tried to use sports journalism as a way to explain culture, politics and fight for social justice.

This interview was adapted for the web by Manuela Lopez Restrepo.

Comments