Maatje Benassi has had her life turned upside down after conspiracy theorists falsely placed her at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, saying that she brought the disease to China.
These false claims are spreading like wildfire on YouTube every day, racking up hundreds of thousands of views and have been embraced by Chinese Communist Party media.
Maatje, her husband Ben and her two children have never been tested positive for coronavirus or experienced symptoms but are now subjects of discussion on Chinese social media.
The family’s home address has been posted online and they had to shut down their social media accounts as their inboxes were overflowing with messages from believers of the conspiracy.
“It's like waking up from a bad dream going into a nightmare day after day,” Maatje told CNN Business in an exclusive interview.
Maatje works as a civilian employee at the US Army's Fort Belvoir in Virginia and her husband Ben is a civilian employee with the Air Force at the Pentagon. Despite the couple working for the US Government, Maatje believes it's too much.
“I want everybody to stop harassing me, because this is cyberbullying to me and it's gone way out of hand,” Maajte said while fighting back tears.
The baseless claims initially began after Maatje participated in October 2019 in the Military World Games and was hosted by Wuhan, where the coronavirus outbreak began.
While hundreds of US athletes took part in the games, Maatje Benassi was plucked out of the group and named as the reason why COVID-19 hit the city.
The claims have gained more traction due to George Webb, who’s a prolific American misinformation peddler. Webb, 59, regularly streams hours of misinformation on YouTube and has amassed more than 27 million views.
Webb considers himself an “investigative reporter” instead of a conspiracy theorist, but Maatje’s husband Ben said that it’s “hard to hold Webb accountable”.
“Law enforcement will tell you that there's nothing that we can do about it because we have free speech in this country,” Ben explained.
“Then they say, 'Go talk to a civil attorney,' so we did. We talked to an attorney. You quickly realize that for folks like us, it's just too expensive to litigate something like this. We get no recourse from law enforcement. We get no recourse from the courts.”
Unfortunately for the Benassi family, the “damage is done”.
“I know it [will] never be the same. Every time you're going to Google my name, it will pop up as patient zero,” said Maatje sadly.
Photo credits: Heather Fulbright / CNN
This article originally appeared on Over60.