Fear and quackery
To counter the toxic and evergrowing flow of misinformation and conspiracies regarding COVID-19 and its treatments, Governments worldwide must take decisive steps to bring order
The panic of COVID-19 pandemic has engulfed the entire world including India. In this piquant situation, unscientific ideas proliferate to focus on the way to prevent, treat and cure since people have an epistemic need to know the truth and feel safe.
Anxiety, fear and the beguiling temptations of a vulnerable patient group, largely created by social media, provide the unscrupulous with incentives for lucrative quackery and exploitation. Patients and potential patients panic, suspend rationality and start investing hope in unlikely offerings of prophylactic agents, treatments and cures. There is an emergent need for the government to provide comprehensive and scientific information so that citizens are protected against unethical purveyors of spurious or unproven treatments.
Advertisements of products claiming to prevent or cure COVID-19 of misleading and unregistered products are common. In Japan, the concerned authority conducted emergency surveillance on March 11 and identified 46 items sold by 30 companies making false claims breaching permissible advertising rules, leading to multiple raids of drugstores and stopping the sale of quack Coronavirus products. In Iran, a Muslim cleric advocated the application of "Prophet's Perfume" under the nose of Coronavirus patients. In Korea, the River of Grace Community Church sprayed saltwater in parishioners' mouths as a prophylactic agent. Cow urine as a COVID-19 cure was promoted by a Member of the Legislative Assembly in Assam in India. It was also propagated that cow dung could also destroy COVID-19.
A troubling variety of false treatments for COVID-19 has been touted by persons of influence, including politicians and religious figures during the pandemic. The prominent public figures continue to play an outsized role in spreading misinformation. In the United States, President Trump expressed unscientific enthusiasm for hydroxychloroquine, remdesivir, azithromycin, bleach and ultraviolet light. In Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro went a step further and ordered the distribution of hydroxychloroquine, prompting a run on quina tea. In Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko propounded the idea of a vodka cure.
Spurious remedies were being publicised so seriously that the WHO Director-General in February 2020 strongly professed that the world was not just fighting an epidemic, but fighting an infodemic.The WHO published an extensive list of myth-busters, including that there are no drugs licensed for treatment or prevention of COVID-19.
Generally, pandemics carry particularly emotive connotations that challenge our sense of trust. We are not only afraid of the emerging infection with severe fatalities but also we become fearful of people around us expected to spread the fatal infection to us. There may be severe disruptions of routines, separation from family and friends, shortages of food and medicine, wage loss, social isolation due to quarantine or other social distancing programs. In addition, hospital and medical facilities are under the acute pressure of patient numbers to which they cannot cater. In this crisis, citizens are dependent on government authorities for information, guidance and protection but the ability of such authorities to manage the risk is often not foolproof. There also is a tendency to ignore the governmental exhortations and orders leading to an increase of transmission risk.
The reality of pandemic vulnerability raises the question of how most constructively public health authorities can respond to both conspiracy theories and therapeutic misrepresentations. Recent responses by some governments have provided a useful perspective.
Firstly, health messaging needs to be communicated in a calm and straightforward tone. Secondly, there needs to be a continuing flow of medico-scientifically evidence-based education. Thirdly, there is a need for governments to be assertive in taking preventive and deterrent action.
The writer is a former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board. Views expressed are personal