Treatments and cures are one of the most abundant subjects of misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic. Virtually every substance known to humanity has been proposed as a cure or preventative medicine at some point in the last few years. Some of these ‘cures’ have been dangerously counter-productive. Early in the pandemic, members of a South Korean church had salt water sprayed into their mouths in the belief that this would prevent the spread of covid. Not only was the salt water ineffective, the nozzle of the bottle was not disinfected, and as a result, forty-six people caught the virus.
Political leaders and celebrities have also endorsed ‘cures’ of various kinds. President Rajoelina of Madagascar endorsed a herbal tonic against covid, which he said gave results in seven days. President Trump endorsed hydroxychloroquine (which received an emergency use authorisation by the U.S. food and drug administration before this was later removed), as well as appearing to propose disinfectant and ultraviolet light as potential treatments. More recently, the American podcaster Joe Rogan sparked controversy when he revealed that he had been prescribed ivermectin, a drug not currently endorsed by mainstream experts. The controversy in this case was as much about the drug itself as the way in which his treatment was misreported by news media. The scholar of misinformation is faced with the unenviable task of distinguishing between fake news, and fake news about fake news.
Dubious treatments for epidemic disease are nothing new. From the 16th to the 18th centuries, physicians, apothecaries, quack doctors and ordinary people prescribed a very wide range of substances for the prevention and treatment of the plague. These included relatively common substances such as water, vinegar or herbs and spices, through to exotic items like magical amulets, bezoar stones, and ‘unicorn’ (e.g. rhino) horn. According to the physician Nathaniel Hodges, some nurses even recommended eating and drinking human excrement and urine as a preservative.
The supposed causes of plague were similarly colourful. While there was a rough consensus that plague was a divine punishment for sin, and that it could be caused by poisonous miasmas as well as being contagious, the explanations for individual cases could vary enormously. Infections were variously attributed to eating cherries, opening a cellar that had been shut for many years, overhearing a caterwauling cat, frequenting tippling houses and bowling alleys, excessive walking and (ahem) ‘undue and immoderate venery’ – an explanation that we have not yet encountered for the spread of covid.
The breadth of potential cures can no doubt be explained by people’s willingness to try anything during a deadly epidemic, but it is interesting that the simpler cures were often advocated by those who believed plague was not infectious. The anonymous author of an anti-quarantine tract published in 1720 argued that plague was not contagious and could be prevented by moderate diet and exercise, drinking lots of water, and adopting a stoical attitude. The relative simplicity of this prescription made for a greater contrast with the supposedly disproportionate quarantine measures adopted by the government. Perhaps the modern opponents of vaccination favour simple and widely available ‘cures’ for similar reasons. Why go to the mild inconvenience of getting vaccinated when you can just swallow some zinc tablets?
While the early modern medical authorities railed against quackery, their own cures were not much better. Physicians tended to dismiss popular treatments by saying that they were only sometimes effective, if given in the correct doses, in the correct manner and at appropriate times, as part of a bespoke dietary and exercise regime. Needless to say, all of this had to be supervised by a properly authorised physician. This seems to be a key difference. In the past, the line between orthodox and hetorodox medicine was rather blurrier than it is now. Medicine dispensed by trained and licensed physicians was often dismissed, with some justice, as either useless or worse than the disease. Now, science and medicine have enormous and well-deserved prestige. And yet somehow, we seem just as willing to put our trust in untested ‘cures’ of various kinds