Top News

Sunday, Jul 26, 2020 14:30 [IST]

Last Update: Sunday, Jul 26, 2020 08:46 [IST]

COVID-19: Fear, quackery and false representations

Dr DEBAPRIYA MUKHERJEE
The panic of the COVID 19 pandemic has engulfed the world and has spread its reach in India as well. Many thousands have lost their lives around the world.  The panic-stricken human race is embroiled in a fight with the disease, as a cure is looking like a distant dream in absence of effective medicine or vaccine. In this piquant situation, novel and sometimes unscientific ideas proliferate to focus the way to prevent, to treat and to cure.  Because people have an epistemic need to know the truth and they also have an existential need to feel safe. In times of crisis if these needs are not fulfilled, conspiracy theories can seem appealing.
Anxiety, fear and the beguiling temptations of a vulnerable patient group provide the unscrupulous with incentives for lucrative quackery and exploitation. During a pandemic, severe anxiety created by alarmist and  propagated by social media, the contagion of fear stalks alongside the disease itself, resulting in a preparedness on the part of a cross-section of patients or potential patients to panic, to suspend rationality and to invest hope in unlikely offerings of prophylactic agents, treatments and cures. In addition, during a pandemic followed by lockdown, more people are spending time at home searching online for solution to the threats already in their mind. Capitalizing the fear and anxiety of the people, false claims, misinformation narratives and rumour-mongering on social media can achieve high levels of publicity. Under these circumstances, emergent need is that government should provide promptly and consistently with comprehensible, scientifically-based information so as to make sound therapeutic decision in their own and the community‘s best interests so that citizens will be protected against the misrepresentations and false facts propagated by unethical purveyors of spurious or unproven treatments and medical instruments.
In many countries, unfortunately, some people are taking advantage of the current situation by advertising products that claim to prevent or cure COVID-19. Claims being made include unregistered products that 'kill COVID-19', air purifiers that help fight the coronavirus, complementary medicines that prevent the virus, and a medical device that treats a number of serious diseases including COVID-19, HIV-AIDS and cancer. In Japan, Concerned authority on 11 March, had conducted emergency surveillance and identified 46 items sold by 30 companies claiming prophylactic effects against COVID-19 have breached permissible advertising rules. In particular, there had been advertisements touting vitamin C and Chinese herbs as efficacious but to be neither objective nor reasonable. Multiple raids of drugstores was attempt to suppress 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 a northern Iranian hospital in Gilan Province. 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. Hundreds of people attended a “gaumutra (cow urine)” party in many parts of 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 about COVID-19. Out of many, only examples are cited. In the United States President Trump expressed unscientific enthusiasm for hydroxychloroquine, remdesivir, azithromycin, bleach and ultraviolet light. In Brazil President JairBolsonaro went a step further and ordered the distribution of hydrochloroquine, prompting a run on ?quina tea. In Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko propounded the idea of a vodka cure. The expert says if people are drinking spirits, the relative concentration of that is relatively low. So the amount you would need to drink would kill you before it kills the virus.
During the COVID-19 crisis in 2020 spurious remedies were publicized so seriously that WHO Director General February 2020 strongly professed that the world was not ?just fighting an epidemic; we‘re fighting an infodemic, a component of which related to the propagation of conspiracy theories, bogus cures and misinformation about the pandemic. The WHO responded by publishing an extensive list of myth-busters, endeavouring to provide counter-information to issues such as: there are no drugs licensed for treatment or prevention of COVID-19;  adding pepper to food does not prevents or cures COVID-19; house flies or mosquitoes can not transmit COVID-19; there are dangers and ineffectiveness of introduction of bleach or other disinfectants;  drinking methanol, ethanol or bleach pose danger; 5G networks are not able to spread COVID-19; exposure to the sun or to temperatures higher than 25C does not prevent coronavirus disease; the fact that being able to hold breath for more than 10 seconds does not mean person is free of COVID-19; drinking alcohol does not prevent COVID-19; Hot weather, hot baths, cold weather and snow cannot kill the new coronavirus; hand-dryers are not effective in killing coronavirus.
One Facebook user said cigarette smoke is effective in killing the virus but experts say smoking increases ACE 2 receptors in the lungs that cause the COVID-19 virus. Regarding killing of virus during hot weather it can be mentioned that  coronavirus can survive in body temperature of 37 degrees Celsius, so if it is 37C or 40C outside how it will kill. If it is considered that this virus wouldn’t survive above 50C but how many places reach 50C? The demand for ginger and turmeric has soared in many cities as it protects from Covid-19 but expert says they did not have any scientific validation of those kinds of things. According to them, it is a risky strategy to believe something works without proper clinical trials and as yet there are no trials focused on examining whether specific herbs would be effective.
Generally  pandemics carry particularly emotive connotations that challenges our sense of trust.  During pandemics  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. Because pandemics are associated with a score of psychosocial stressors, including health threats to oneself and loved ones. 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, and school closure. In addition, hospital and medical facilities are under the acute pressure of patient numbers to which they cannot cater. In this crisis, citizens are particularly dependent on government authorities for information, guidance and protection but the ability of such authorities to manage the risk to the community often does not foolproof.  Tendency of many people to ignore the governmental exhortations and even orders often exacerbate the levels of transmission risk.
Fear is apt to generate stress responses, to which some persons are more predisposed than others by reason of a combination of genetic, psychological, biological, educational and situational factors. In face of the pressures of a pandemic we are all vulnerable but some amongst us have especial psychological frailties as a result of rigidities of personality, particular levels of fearfulness or a propensity to anxiety that can be exploited. This is the more pronounced in an era in which all forms of media, including social media, make information, including alarmist and stress-inducing information, the more accessible and ubiquitous. Those who are less educated, who have disabilities or who are socially isolated have additional vulnerabilities in terms of their ability to understand and process government issued information.
Now the reality of pandemic vulnerability raises the question of how most constructively public health authorities can respond in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic to meet 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 which does not exacerbate anxieties and irrational fears, but rather encourages prudent caretaking conduct. Secondly, there needs to be a continuing flow of medico-scientifically evidence-based education which works toward disabusing members of the community of misunderstandings, fears and fallacies which otherwise may gain popular traction and exacerbate paranoid and anxiety pathologies, as well as render people more prone to be victimized. Thirdly, there is a need for governments to be assertive in taking preventative and deterrent action against those who are misusing the COVID-19 era to enrich themselves opportunistically or to take advantage of those who lack the capacity to be discerning about false claims of capacity to prevent, treat, or cure the disease.
For good reason, the traditional public health approach to such misrepresentations is to provide a clear warning initially to those responsible for such misinformation in the form of what in the United States are called cease and desist orders. However, where there is non-compliance in face of such governmental communications, robust legal action needs to be initiated with condign imposition of penalties to deter and punish unethical quackery during a pandemic.

E-mail dpmcpcb@yahoo.com

Sikkim at a Glance

  • Area: 7096 Sq Kms
  • Capital: Gangtok
  • Altitude: 5,840 ft
  • Population: 6.10 Lakhs
  • Topography: Hilly terrain elevation from 600 to over 28,509 ft above sea level
  • Climate:
  • Summer: Min- 13°C - Max 21°C
  • Winter: Min- 0.48°C - Max 13°C
  • Rainfall: 325 cms per annum
  • Language Spoken: Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Tibetan, English, Hindi