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Quackery, miracle cures and Covid-19: What’s in the kitchen stays in the kitchen

Quackery, miracle cures and Covid-19: What’s in the kitchen stays in the kitchen
Clay banks for Unsplash

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, miracle cures and fake therapies have made the rounds on our neighbourhood WhatsApp groups, but also via the US president’s mouth, coming out in regular public statements-turned-bombshells-turned-‘sarcasm’. Is this a new dawn for quackery?

“So, supposing we hit the body with a tremendous – whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light … And then I said, supposing you brought the light inside of the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way … Sounds interesting … And then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning?”

US President Donald J Trump’s 23 April comments might have come as a surprise, or maybe not so much, but he wasn’t the first one to play with – and mention it out loud – an incongruous and potentially dangerous cure-all idea. A few weeks earlier, self-proclaimed ‘Natural health expert’ Sherrill Sellman said on The Jim Bakker Show, “[Silver Solution] has been proven by the government that it has the ability to kill every pathogen it has ever been tested on, including SARS and HIV”.

Such haphazard and arbitrary comments are alarming, as emergency room physician in Portland, US, Dr Esther Choo told MSNBC in April: “The idea of introducing something that is a known toxin into the body — isopropyl alcohol, disinfectants, I mean those are things we always worry that kids swallow accidentally, or people who are intentionally trying to hurt themselves… UV light inside the body?”

And they could also have dangerous consequences. The Miami New Times reported that, “Not long after President Donald Trump pondered the potential effectiveness of disinfectant as a cure for Covid-19 during a press briefing last week, a woman sent a message to Florida’s Poison Control Centers on social media. ‘That one was particularly concerning,’ says Dr Wendy Stephan, a health education coordinator and epidemiologist for Florida Poison Information Center – Miami. ‘She was asking if, for a child, it was better to inject or ingest.’”

The paper adds that “from April 23 — the day of the press briefing — to April 27, Stephan says, the centre received 17 calls and multiple emails and social media messages from people around the state asking how to safely consume cleaning products to treat Covid-19”.

So why does Trump do this? Some have called it a random stream of consciousness but mainly experts and journalists have pointed at quackery, The New Yorker noting, Trump’s quackery was at once eccentric and terrifying – a reminder, if one was needed, of his scorn for rigorous science, even amid the worst pandemic to strike the country in a century.”

According to Random House Dictionary, the word “quack” comes from the early 17th Century Dutch “kwakken” or “kwakzalver”, and translates to “hawker of salve”; a Mental Floss article also mentions the word referenced in “Francis Quarles’ 1638 book, Hieroglyphikes of the Life of Man: ‘Quack, leave thy trade; thy dealings are not right, thou tak’st our weighty gold, to give us light.’”

The short definition of a quack is someone who claims knowledge about something they have no clue about (cue Donald J Trump), also known as a “charlatan or snake oil salesman”. But a quack shouldn’t be mistaken for a fraud. In fact, you could be a quack by randomly promoting cures because you truly believe they work, you think you “get it”, similar to Donald J Trump (again) who said, as reported by The Intercept: “‘I say, maybe you can, maybe you can’t. I’m not a doctor … But I’m, like, a person that has a good, you know what,’ he added, pointing to his head.” He sort of believes what he hears and shares it with the world without thinking it twice over. Although totally wrong about many assumptions he makes on live TV, that doesn’t necessarily make him a medical fraud.

To be a fraud, you would have to be a quack and know you’re quacking people. For example, a 1964 hearing filed under “Health Frauds and Quackery” was against “promoters [who] prey on the sense of insecurity and doubt prevalent among older people and try to sell varieties of products on the theory of ‘insurance’.” Quackery and fraud.

And although quackery could have varying degrees of gravity, it doesn’t always get addressed legally. While recently, the state of Missouri, US, filed a lawsuit against “televangelist Jim Bakker and his production company to stop them from advertising or selling Silver Solution and related products as treatments for the coronavirus”, President Trump is still sharing his positive “feelings” about hydroxychloroquine and injected disinfectant on TV…

Quackwatch, a pro-science US organisation self-described as “a network of websites and mailing lists maintained by the Center for Inquiry (CFI)”, that hopes to be, among other things, “investigating questionable claims; answering inquiries about products and services and advising quackery victims”, explains that one can recognise a quack because they usually “exude self-confidence and enthusiasm”; they “often refer to their methods as ‘alternatives’ … Its promoters wear the cloak of science. They use scientific terms and quote (or misquote) scientific references. Talk show hosts may refer to them as experts or as ‘scientists ahead of their time’.” In short, it’s easy to fall for their lies.

A 1965 research paper dubbed “Why People Become the Victims of Medical Quackery” explains that humans tend to believe in quackery as a “magical defence against fear”. Surfing on both human fears and hopes, quacks “may be perceived as the counteracting benevolent rescuer who promises to purify, strengthen, and provide immunity against all perils of life”. It’s a tempting promise.

And many quacks there have been in the history of humankind. From snake oil, created “by plopping snakes in a vat of boiling water and bottling the fat that rises to the top” to cocaine, which was “marketed as a treatment for toothaches, depression, sinusitis, lethargy, alcoholism, and impotence”, strychnine (a highly toxic and bitter pesticide) was used against lack of focus, vibrators that were recommended to cure hysteria (which was then considered a disease) or an X-ray depilatory machine that “ultimately caused cancer in the thousands of women who paid for the treatment”, these and many more quacks are all exhibited at the Museum of Quackery and Medical Frauds at the Science Museum in Minnesota, US.

In South Africa, Maverick Life’s Malibongwe Tyilo spotted local brands like Ingwe, which “are available at smaller shops across South Africa, as well as big pharmaceutical retailers like Clicks” and offer a variety of bottled salts that promise a range of treatments. On the shelves, Ingwe’s IGAZI Herbal Blood Mixture “helps to purify the blood for transfusions without damaging the blood cells”, for only R28; for R12.99, their Itshe Abelungu pink bath salts can be sprinkled “around one’s home to keep away evil spirits”; and against South Africa’s most infamous evil spirit, the elusive tokoloshe, fret not; for R16.99, Clicks stocks a 500g bottle of Ingwe’s Tokoloshe Salts “to ward off evil spirits, having been blessed by a traditional healer during production, giving it its mystical power. Use around the house or even on food.” On their e-commerce website, Clicks stocks Tokoloshe salts in three colours: black, white, and red.

So, beware… The International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol) recently released an alert message recommending us to be vigilant against the proliferation of fake medicines. “Fake medicines can be counterfeit, contaminated or mislabelled. Don’t take the chance”, they say. DM/ ML


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