The Bolivian Health Ministry has been perfectly clear: It doesn't consider chlorine dioxide a legitimate treatment for COVID-19. That’s not surprising. Chlorine dioxide, better known in much of the world as Miracle Mineral Supplement or MMS, is a bleach solution that’s been touted for years as a bogus miracle cure for everything from cancer to HIV. Health authorities across the world have warned of its potentially lethal side effects. But in late July, the Bolivian Senate passed a bill legalizing the substance as a COVID-19 treatment, meaning that companies can produce it and doctors can prescribe it.
The decision went against everything public health officials have recommended, and it set up a confusing—and potentially deadly—public messaging battle. "We have already drawn up a resolution that says this substance is not approved, that it is not suitable for human consumption and that it can have serious consequences," Rene Sahonero, a health ministry adviser, said in late July, according to Al Jazeera. The agency said in mid-July that at least five people had been poisoned by chlorine dioxide in the city of La Paz.
Across the globe, the story is the same: Federal and municipal governments, along with individual lawmakers, are promoting a variety of bogus cures and treatments for COVID-19. The New York Times reported in July that the problem is severe in much of Latin America, where chlorine dioxide and ivermectin, which treats some intestinal parasites and head lice, have been promoted as COVID treatments. (The World Health Organization said that in June that three studies which claimed to show that ivermectin was effective as a coronavirus treatment were all highly flawed. “None of these studies was peer-reviewed nor formally published and one study was later retracted,” the agency said, adding that their review of the studied showed they were “found to have a high risk of bias, very low certainty of the evidence, and that the existing evidence is insufficient to draw a conclusion on benefits and harms.” The agency recommended awaiting the outcome of several randomized, clinical trials currently underway before using the drug as a COVID treatment.)
In the early days of the pandemic, denialism was common. In Indonesia, health minister Terawan Agus Putranto claimed in February that the country’s lack of COVID cases was due to prayer, calling the lack of illness “a gift from God.” Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro called the virus “a measly cold” as late as April; by August, the country had the second-highest death toll in the world, after the United States, and Bolsonaro himself had tested positive. (He was forced to self-isolate at his presidential palace, where he complained mightily and was bitten by a large bird.) U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson bragged in March that the coronavirus wouldn’t stop him from shaking hands with visiting dignitaries and even medical staff at a hospital where COVID patients were being treated; by the end of the month, he’d become the first world leader to contract the virus.
Once world leaders couldn’t deny or pray the virus away anymore, the bogus cures started to boom. The Washington Post reported in May that several world governments were promoting unproven coronavirus treatments: In Madagascar, President Andry Rajoelina hyped a supposed miracle beverage called Covid-Organics, which he urged parents to give to their school-aged children daily. (A viral, and entirely false, rumor claimed that Russian president Vladimir Putin had ordered Covid-Organics himself.) In Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko called COVID-19 a “psychosis” and claimed it could be treated with vodka, ice hockey and saunas. Lukashenko told journalists this summer that he contracted COVID-19 himself, but was asymptomatic. (Belarus is in the midst of massive protests after Lukashenko won 80 percent of the vote in a recent election, an election which activists and the opposition candidate say was rigged.) In India, health authorities promoted hydroxychloroquine until mid-summer, when they began touting the use of ivermectin instead.
One commonality among countries pushing bogus treatments is that many of them—Brazil, Belarus, and the U.S., in particular—are led by bombastic heads of state intent on downplaying the effects of the virus. President Trump, of course, has repeatedly claimed that hydroxychloroquine is effective as a preventative or a cure, and even claimed to be taking it himself at one point. Bolsonaro has also touted hydroxychloroquine as a miracle drug for both the populace and himself, telling reporters,“Twelve hours after taking that first dose of hydroxychloroquine, I was 100% better. So, it worked for me. I’m the living proof.” And Salvadoran President Nayib Bukel claimed in May that he was also taking the drug. “"I use it as a prophylaxis,” he said at a press conference. “President Trump uses it as a prophylaxis. Most of the world's leaders use it as a prophylaxis."
The supposed miracle cures are becoming more sophisticated by the day: Russia claimed in March that it had created a supposed curative drug, which turned out to simply be mefloquine, another anti-malarial. By August, they said they’d created the first COVID vaccine, but that the drug hasn’t gone through clinical trials and can’t be widely used. Nonetheless, Putin has claimed that his own daughter was one of the first volunteers to receive the vaccine, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, ever mindful of a moment to grab a headline, also volunteered himself as a guinea pig.
“It's ridiculous,” Svetlana Zavidova, a lawyer who heads the Association of Clinical Research Organizations in Russia, told the publication Science. “I feel only shame for our country.”
“Natural” remedies have also been promoted by government officials, despite having absolutely no proven effects against the virus. In Indonesia, once prayer proved to be an ineffective treatment, the agriculture ministry claimed that an aromatherapy necklace made of eucalyptus would kill 80% of the virus if worn for half an hour. (The South China Morning Post reported that the necklaces were met with mockery across the country; days later, the ministry’s head of research and development withdrew the claim, admitting they hadn’t been tested on COVID-19, but on other coronaviruses.) Starting in April, Cuba began distributing a homeopathic remedy called PrevengHo-Vir to elderly and vulnerable people. While there are no specific studies yet on the product, homeopathy is pseudoscience and doesn’t work.
The global trade in denialism and bogus treatments hasn’t escaped the notice of the World Health Organization. A spokesperson for the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), an arm of the WHO, told VICE News they’re concerned by those “recommending or administering unproven treatments to COVID-19 patients.” They’ve issued advisories advising extreme caution for off-label use of medicines for COVID-19, as well as a medical product alert to warn against what they call “a growing number of falsified medical products that claim to prevent, detect, treat or cure” coronavirus.
The agency has also issued a specific warning against the use of what it calls “chlorine products."
“Every nation, particularly those with regulatory authorities, is in a position to advise its citizens regarding the use of any drug,” a PAHO spokesperson told VICE News. “Although hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine are already licensed products for treating other diseases, at this stage, robust randomized available data, to adequately evaluate the potential benefits and harms from use of this drug as prophylaxis is not yet available. Warnings have been issued on the side effects of the drugs and their use has been limited in many countries to clinical trials under strict supervision in hospital settings.”
Ultimately, the PAHO spokesperson added, the massive influx in questionable medical advice is part of a larger issue. “The COVID-19 outbreak and response has been accompanied by a massive ‘infodemic,’” they said, “an over-abundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need.”
And for many people worldwide, their elected officials are the last place they can look for that guidance. The only effective treatments we know about for COVID-19 necessarily require the functioning of society and the state: robust testing, contact tracing, clear quarantine and social distancing guidelines, and financial help for those affected by the economic impacts of the virus. The world leaders peddling bullshit products are pretty much all populist leaders who position themselves as being fundamentally against the state and the idea that society can or even should work toward a common goal, lone heroes intent on offering miracles that need no one and nothing else but them. Those cures will never work, but that's beside the point. In the end, they’re not really about health at all, but about making clear that people working together cannot do anything, and that the only thing to be relied upon is a strongman—an idea as hollow as it is deadly.
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