The long shadow of Covid-19 pseudoscience

glove

The spread of pseudoscience myths has taken off like, well, a social contagion. Many marketers have co-opted real terms of public health such as flatten the curve to lend a false legitimacy to their products. Still others have relied on fear and conspiracy. Most frighteningly, some have creating new alliances with the radical right, leaving a legacy we will be dealing with for decades. Here is a rundown of 3 trends I’ve been following: bleach, supplements and Masks4All.

Bleach amulets and MMS
The first COVID-related article of faith I saw online was a plastic amulet filled with hardened industrial bleach, with the claim it could ward off coronaviruses. It’s called the “Corona Necklace” or “Shut Out” lanyard and sellers claim it can kill off coronaviruses up to one meter away.

These products are made by some of the same people who make Miracle Medical Solution (MMS), a phony cure people also ingest, believing it can cure a variety of conditions including autism. Like most pseudoscience purveyors, the bleach-cure marketers are always looking for a new disease to “cure” because it means more profits for them. Most successful pseudoscience marketers sell to multiple markets. In fact, this is a red flag for pseudoscience: If it can cure everything under the sun, it’s a fake for sure.

When President Trump referenced cleaning products as a potential COVID treatment (a claim he later backed away from), I co-wrote an article for the New York Times about the MMS industry and the power it’s attained as regulators and social media platforms did not take swift enough action over the years. Advocates were working to get regulatory action well before the pandemic, as the companies continued to promote MMS for autism and a host of medical conditions, including cancer. I’m happy to report that in April US federal marshals issued Cease and Desist orders to several MMS companies as part of a broader crackdown on COVID pseudoscience. The Genesis 2 “Church,” a key dealer, will appear in court in late May for contempt of court because it didn’t follow an earlier injunction.

Genesis 2 isn’t the only big MMS seller. “3 Doses of CD Knocked Out his Coronavirus Symptoms!” claimed the website of MMS marketer Kerri Rivera. (CD is MMS). Ms. Rivera was also served papers by the FDA in April, however her company has a history of re-inventing itself with new groups, new names and new platforms. There are also smaller MMS dealers. The FDA’s battle is far from over.

For buyers who resist the idea of MMS in its ingestible form (or in markets where regulators have banned it), sellers created the hardened-bleach amulet. Much like Trump floated the idea of “injectable” cleansers for COVID, Press Secretary of the President of Russia Dmitry Peskov was reported to be wearing one of the lanyards, although after these reports he stated he had stopped wearing it. Recently, US Customs has been seizing the lanyards as part of a larger crackdown on phony COVID products.

Amulets serve a powerful role in culture. The idea of warding off evil spirits, death and disease with a symbol is ancient, and our ancient superstitions tend to resurface in times of uncertainty. Like now. Unfortunately, when people embrace magic protective objects instead of taking appropriate steps (for example, sheltering in place and keeping social distance), they are endangering public health.

Health supplements & Re-open protests: Right wing links
Pseudoscience marketers have been profiting by attaching their “COVID solution” to conspiracy theories and hostility aimed at public health leaders. The pseudoscience empire of Joseph Mercola, for example, asserts that “COVID-19 virus is a chimera. It includes SARS, an already weaponized coronavirus, along with HIV genetic material and possibly flu virus.” Mercola’s website is promoting Coronavirus prevention through probiotics, Vitamin D, Maca, “Beta 1,3D Glucan” and a host of other products that the company sells, with the ad content running directly beside its “news” headlines with titles like China Poised to Attack America and World Health Organization Should Be Renamed Chinese Health Organization.

This juxtaposition is a red flag for larger social and human rights issues that will continue to resonate long after the COVID crisis is over: the infiltration of the complementary medicine and antivax community by racist, right-wing conspiracy groups.

In many countries, a radical fringe of the Re-open movement has targeted Facebook support groups for parents who don’t vaccinate their kids and been organized by “longtime conservative activists, whose robust operations were initially set up with help from Republican megadonors” according to a Washington Post expose. In Canada, the Re-open protests were initially organized by a group called Free North Patriots, which likewise recruited from parent antivax groups and included Yellow Vests and other racist groups. Also involved is the People’s Party of Canada (PPC), a far-right political party that espouses conspiracy and anti-immigrant rhetoric. The radical right was able to connect with antivax parents on conspiracies about 5G and public health and the groups came together for the protests. The impact for the PPC at the polls remains to be seen.

The convergence of these interest groups at the rallies signifies a long recruitment campaign by far right groups. It’s been a radical shift for a lot of antivaxxers, many of whom were formerly otherwise liberal in their views. Now more than ever we have to look carefully at how we communicate with the fence-sitters (people who still hold mainstream views other than antivax) to help keep them away from the ranks of the radical right and an emerging Canadian Tea Party.

Our discussions with antivaxxers are no longer just about public health and children’s rights. In this work, we are now also fighting the rise of fascism in Canada.

Pseudoscience: Fake news & stealth marketing
Fake health news has abounded throughout the pandemic and thus we also need to critically look at the sources we’re using for news. For example, the pretend newspaper (Medium) is running advertorial content about “slowing contagion” through pseudoscience, such as “Don’t Just Avoid the Virus — Defeat It by Strengthening Your Immunity. After acknowledging the importance of hand washing and social distancing, authors Amory Lomens and Eric Rasmussen then call public health guidance into question, writing: “We’re told to avoid exposure, but not to reduce ‘host hospitality’ (us being hospitable to the virus) by making ourselves more resistant to viral infection. Slowing the spread and flattening the curve will take both.” The solution, in their telling, is to take vitamins–especially vitamin C.

Lovins and Rasmussen continue in part 2 of the series, “A User’s Guide to Vitamin C in the context of Covid-19,” recommending a specific brand of vitamin C (PERQUE PotentC Guard). They write: “Lovins gets his from www.vitamins-today.com or 800–806–8671″. I Googled Lovins and learned that he also writes for Dr Russell Jaffe’s natural wellness website, which promotes PERQUE PotentC Guard to prevent oxalate kidney stones and other ailments. Dr. Jaffe is author of The Alkaline Way and–what do you know—also the founder of Perque Integrative Health, a supplement company that specializes in Vitamin C.

As a platform, Medium promotes not only pseudoscience but also the Yellow Vests, pro-fascist dictatorship propaganda and other fake news. We all need to consider whether we should be supporting and sharing from platforms like this.

Masks 4 All: Lying for the cause
Regardless of whether you wear a face mask when social distancing isn’t possible (I do), it’s clear that much of the rhetoric of the most popular lobby for mask mandates is based on lies. From its founding, the lobby group Masks4All has been distorting truth to sell its brand and agenda, co-opted familiar terms from science like flatten the curve for their own unscientific marketing.

It has been difficult to have conversations about this because to some people any conversation with the word “mask” in it is a pro/con debate about masks. I’ve already made clear I support Health Canada recommendations. I am focusing here on the significant problems with the Masks4All organization itself and why Canada should not give this group any leadership as it develops policy. Here are some examples of the rhetoric from the Masks 4 All website:

  • “Wearing a mask is equally effective or more effective than distancing” (1.0*)
  • “Wearing a simple cloth mask decreases the spread of Covid by 80%” (1.0)
  • “Masks will bring back jobs” (2.0)
  • “If you go out without your mask, you might kill someone” (1.0)
  • “If you see someone out without a mask, they might kill you” (1.0)
  • “Anyone without a mask puts you and your family at risk” (2.0)

(*Quotes from the first version of the website=1.0 and current version= 2.0.)

The ethos of the movement seems to be that any lie is ok if it gets people to wear masks. Many in the movement embrace conspiracy thinking about public health agencies, a trend that Masks4All has never discouraged or debunked. The CDC has blood on their hands for lying to Americans about how masks do nothing,” reads a top comment on a Masks 4 All DIY YouTube video. “CDC coverup about face masks will bankrupt them when this is over!” claimed another viral post. Fear helps to sell the brand. Some of the group’s myths are perpetuated by blogs with inaccurate country data that make their way onto mainstream media websites. (Tara Haelle covers this in her work. Read the full article).

While the membership of the Board of Masks4All has evolved to include more North Americans in businesses such as 3-D printing, business consulting and investing/venture capitalism, the campaign has shifted its focus towards rhetoric like “masks will bring back jobs”. The latest version of their website targets small business owners and governmental representatives:  “People won’t enter businesses if they don’t feel safe.”

It’s notable that they have focused on customers feeling safe, rather than actually being safe. Actual safety involves expenses that cut into the bottom line of businesses, such as curbside pickup-only, limiting the number of customers in stores, people staying home and buying less, and closures during the upcoming second wave. As well, if a corporation can convince people to feel like “your mask protects,” it is easier for them to coerce employees into dangerous work conditions that don’t truly protect them (e.g., no cap on customers or social distancing enforced onsite, yet employees told they will be “safe” because they have masks on.

There is an additional risk in this rhetoric. If individuals believe the Masks4All claim that: “If you see someone out without a mask, they might kill you,” this will lead to a rise in violence and vigilantism. It is incendiary language. Ultimately, there is no excuse for this kind of rhetoric, nor for any of the lies and there no ethical justification for supporting this organization.

What can we do?
Predatory groups have descended on people at their most vulnerable moments during this crisis and sadly, that’s nothing new. The pseudoscience industry has a history of being responsible for real violence against autistic and developmentally disabled people in the form of “treatments” and has led people to refuse life-saving medical care for cancer and other conditions. It is not “the CDC” that has blood on its hands—it is the pseudoscience industry.

There is no safe amount of pseudoscience to tolerate in this crisis. I understand that this is personal—people’s emotional health can be tied in with the objects and choices that will reduce their anxieties about safety. You might feel like if your family member or neighbour wants to take some vitamins or wear a fake amulet that’s ok, because it makes them feel better. But pseudoscience, and all that goes along with it, remains risky to the safety and emotional wellness of our society. Public panic leads to violence and make everyone less safe. The radical right is seizing on the opportunity to build its community. Big business is leveraging fears to offer simplistic solutions that merely increase their bottom line. Many of the products and beliefs are part of a disinformation network that profits from propaganda against our public health agencies.

We need to ask: what impact does it have on our children who are watching these rituals, other than to confuse them about what is safe–and indeed, their notion of how “safe” our world even is now? These are ethical questions that can’t wait. They reflect the long shadow of pseudoscience and its impact on our psyches and our children’s future.

It’s why we all need to intervene when we see Covid-19 pseudoscience. If you see something, say something. We can use our own influence to promote resources that are based on science. This sometimes means stepping outside our comfort zone or re-thinking how we communicate with people that have different views. It means getting comfortable with admitting that sometimes the answer is “I don’t know” because information is changing, because this is all new. And it especially means keeping our messages to our children about this pandemic simple, calm and always truthful.

Take care, everyone.  #StaySafeStayHome.