- Every day, in social media groups with hundreds of thousands of members, a debate rages about the best way to treat Covid with laundry lists of unproven medicines.
- millions of people have chosen to reject vaccines and rigorous medical research in favour of unproven treatments and pseudoscientific home remedies.
- Ivermectin was extremely widely used in Latin America during the first months of the pandemic as regional health agencies recommended it as a potential Covid treatment.
As per a report by The Guardian, during the pandemic, there were several thoughts and questions clashing on what type of medication should be taken during the pandemic. many also supported and spread “pseudoscience” knowledge rapidly over social media.
Debating on what should be taken during the pandemic
Every day, in social media groups with hundreds of thousands of members, a debate rages about the best way to treat Covid with laundry lists of unproven medicines.
What is the right dose of the antiparasitic drug ivermectin? When should it be taken? Should it be combined with hydroxychloroquine? With the antibiotic azithromycin? What about Pepcid, hydrogen peroxide, colloidal silver? Vitamin C? Take it all, one user tells people. And chew a lemon peel, says another.
Two years into the pandemic and we now have a range of safe and effective vaccines and treatments that are readily available in much of the world. Yet millions of people have chosen to reject vaccines and rigorous medical research in favour of unproven treatments and pseudoscientific home remedies.
There’s no single reason that explains why people from varied backgrounds in numerous countries have latched on to these treatments with such fervour. But there is clearly a desperate demand for a quick fix to the pandemic. There is also a near limitless supply of medical misinformation telling people that such a solution is available but nefarious forces are intent on keeping it from the public.
The mass belief in unproven treatments is often spurred on by a vast ecosystem of medical hucksters profiting from unsound treatments, and media influencers ready to insert their dubious claims into pre-existing political battles.
In the US, for instance, Republican lawmakers and conservative media have attacked public health officials advising lockdowns while championing unproven drugs as miracle cures. One of the first times hydroxychloroquine appeared in mainstream media was on Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s primetime show, where a cryptocurrency investor falsely claiming to be affiliated with Stanford Medical University announced the drug as “the second cure to a virus of all time”. The show did not run a correction.
Ivermectin taking over during pandemic
Although they are often presented as secret cures, hidden away by mainstream medicine and media, some of these drugs are well known and commonly consumed for other conditions. Many are even the subject of numerous clinical trials. Take ivermectin, which is approved for use to treat parasites in both animals and humans.
Ivermectin was extremely widely used in Latin America during the first months of the pandemic as regional health agencies recommended it as a potential Covid treatment, but misinformation claiming that the drug was a cure-all led people to clear out supplies and resort to taking unsafe versions of ivermectin formulated for animals. Health officials stopped recommending ivermectin after scrutiny over the science behind it, and frontline evidence cast doubts on its effectiveness.
But instead of falling by the wayside in favour of more promising drugs, a combination of US culture war politics and pundits caused ivermectin use to explode across North America and the United Kingdom. A fringe doctor whose medical activist group has affiliated with anti-vaccine organisations appeared in a viral YouTube video touting the drug, then months later sat for a sympathetic interview on Joe Rogan’s top-rated podcast.
In September, as the ivermectin craze was in full swing, Dr Patricia Garcia, Peru’s former health minister, told me that she watched in disbelief as the rest of the world appeared to be replicating her country’s mistakes.
None of this would have been possible without social media platforms allowing medical misinformation to spread at an unprecedented speed and scale, while influential media figures such as Carlson and Rogan act as megaphones for fringe actors and junk science. It’s an ecosystem that fosters deep distrust, both of traditional media outlets and public health officials.
But the supply of medical misinformation is only one side of the equation. Within groups dedicated to unproven Covid treatments, believing in these drugs has become its own form of identity. In addition to asking for dosage recommendations or links to telehealth sites for prescriptions, people develop echo chambers that provide a sense of community while attacking outsiders as brainwashed or part of a vast conspiracy. They talk about how they can’t trust doctors, the media, or family members. All they have left is each other.
The online communities promoting ivermectin and other unproven Covid treatments are filled with what appear to be average people misguidedly trying to help one another, giving medical advice or offering comfort. When someone posts that they are sick, they’re met with a flurry of good wishes, and also pseudoscience remedies. In one recent post, two men promised they would pray for each other’s loved ones who had been intubated after contracting Covid.
“Alternative medicine” communities are certainly full of scam artists with financial incentives to spread medical misinformation, and far-right extremists attempting to radicalise others, but many people in these unproven treatment groups simply appear desperate for someone to tell them that things are going to be OK.
Pandemic and pseudoscience
Conspiracy movements tend to consume people who are at their most vulnerable, in times of great distress, often regardless of their intelligence or profession. The pandemic has taken a deep emotional toll on millions of people and similarly appears to have left many distrusting public health officials and susceptible to misinformation.
One study published last month in the Journal of American Medical Association found that people experiencing symptoms of depression were more than twice as likely to express opinions that contained medical misinformation.
There’s little reason to think that the demand for unproven treatments and pseudoscience cures will go away soon. The anti-vaccine movement has become more militant. Covid-19 will not be eradicated.
The financial and political incentives for pushing medical misinformation will remain. There will still be people whose deep distrust and belief in conspiracies mean that they will reach for whatever paste or pill or placebo they have been told will work. Some will recover and praise these unproven treatments as lifesavers. Others won’t get the chance.
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Source: The Guardian