COVID-19 pandemic has been a fatal blow to human arrogance. It’s been pivotal in making us realize that there are only a handful of things truly under our control. In only 100 days, over 1.6 million cases were reported worldwide, causing more than 100,000 deaths. To counter the spread of the virus, many countries declared a nation-wide lockdown, bringing the lives of the citizens to a sudden stop. With the pandemic not showing any signs of slowing down and the patients piling up in hospitals worldwide, the search for a cure began.
Although a plethora of short-term remedies to treat those with an ongoing viral infection do exist, the long-term goal of defeating the virus can only be achieved by coming up with a vaccine that can intentionally induce immunity among the population.
The development of a vaccine, however, is easier said than done. Scientists need time to study a novel disease to come up with a remedy, but patience, as can be seen, is not a virtue of the masses. Due to the novelty of the infectious agent, the initial stages of the ongoing pandemic were full of confusion and a lack of understanding that led to a delay in the nosology of the disease. This further led to the inculcation of anxiety and desperation among the population which provided the ideal atmosphere for rumors to thrive in. This resulted in the revival of certain home remedies as well as untested drugs as potential treatments for the new disease. WhatsApp became the new WebMD. While scientists all over the world toiled to come up with a genuine cure, impatient citizens made the self-proclaimed and untrained medical experts overnight sensations.
Although examples of such ‘quackery’ or the peddling of unproven, ineffective and sometimes fatal 'medicines’ can be found throughout human history, these ‘quacks’ and their so-called remedies still don’t face any difficulty in gaining public support, with many common people even testifying towards the efficacy of the cure.
Historically, quackery has been a fairly common practice, with bogus claims of cures and remedies closely following any outbreak of infectious disease. During the influenza pandemic of 1918, false claims of a cure led to the premature breaking of isolation by many people, which ended up doing more harm than good as many people got infected and increased the load on an already burdened health care system.
The more recent Ebola epidemic was also not impervious to such claims of bogus cures, with many sources touting snake venom, salt solution, vitamin C, and even some herbs as cures for the disease. Multiple reports of hospitalization due to the excessive drinking of salt solution to prevent Ebola infection were reported during this time. Recent claims of COVID-19 cures and remedies are no exception to the aforementioned. Being sensational, these false claims spread faster than the virus, propagating an online pandemic or ‘misinfodemic’ that slowed down official efforts in many places. In Iran, around 700 people died due to alcohol poisoning when claims of toxic methanol being able to kill SARS-CoV-2 went viral. Hours after Hydroxychloroquine was declared as a miracle drug for COVID-19, many people overdosed on it in Africa and Asia. These examples highlight the importance of health literacy among the citizens in assisting the efforts of the authorities and also serve to mention the extreme scenarios that can arise if the misinfodemic
is left unchecked.
It must be noted that the point of mentioning this is not to take anything away from the traditional cures that have been in use for generations, but rather it is to make the audience realize that when it comes to your health, questioning the cure and asking for proper proof rather than blind faith is important, for it can be the difference between life and death in many cases. It might be that tests conducted by official bodies do confirm the efficacy of the cure, but no chances should be taken when someone’s health is in question.
What can then be done to prevent such practices from causing any further damage? Firstly, media outlets must highlight cure scams and educate the public about the situation as it is through them only that such information gets to the masses. This, however, can only restrict the spread of such information and can be simply denied by those who want to believe in the cure. Therefore, targeted seizure and elimination of these so-called ‘cures’ become extremely important to prevent the damage that can potentially be caused by them if they come into circulation.
Governments should also develop outreach programs that highlight the good from the bad and educate the public regarding the points that have to be kept in mind while skimming through writeups glorifying these bogus claims. Government-sponsored media and radio outlets should be put to use to communicate health information to the citizens. In a country as diverse as ours, the integration of traditional healers, faith leaders, and government health bodies becomes extremely important for them to be credible and reach a larger audience.
Politicians should also understand the consequences of their words said during the pandemic and should thus contribute towards the inculcation of scientific temper and inquisitiveness among the masses. Scientists on the other hand should also learn to communicate with the public, either by collaborating with social media outfits or social media influencers to clear misconceptions and doubts regarding these claims that can be found in the public domain. Accountability should be introduced for those who make such claims. This means that if their cures prove to be fake or serve to do the opposite of what they claimed, hefty fines as well as bans should be imposed to prevent others from following suit.
It’s only a matter of time before we get a cure. What exactly will be the nature of this cure however remains something that will be revealed as and when we get it. Rest assured, it won’t be some miraculous remedy that claims to provide respite within a matter of hours, and neither will it be perfect and show a success rate of 100%. With cases showing a sudden upsurge in many places, we as citizens should serve to reduce the burden upon the authorities by following orders and staying informed and should help by not paying heed to the quacks peddling false remedies accompanied by grand claims. This too shall pass and we shall overcome.
- The writer is a PhD student pursuing Biological Science from Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali.