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From baking soda to urine: How home remedies around the world were repackaged as Covid-19 'cures'

The urge to stop Covid-19 created its own genre of misinformation during the pandemic.

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FOR ALL OF its novelty, Covid-19 has provoked some familiar human reactions.

The scapegoating of minorities, outlandish rumours about its origin and even the lack of consistency in naming the new disease are behaviours which have been witnessed during pandemics through the centuries.

But it didn’t take the uncertainty of the current health emergency to produce the most predictable reaction of all: the urge to stop the virus.

We have been repeatedly told that there is no remedy for Covid-19 and that a vaccine could be years away, but its march across the globe has been followed by a litany of fake cures, peddled by a mixture of bad faith actors and overly worried citizens.

An analysis of the #CoronaVirusFacts Alliance, the largest collaborative fact-checking project ever, shows that hundreds of so-called ‘cures’ for the virus have so far been debunked in countries on every continent where Covid-19 struck, including Ireland.

In some cases, false ‘cures’ were put forward by world leaders, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who suggested using a herbal combination to boost immunity, and Donald Trump, who infamously suggested treating the virus by injecting bleach.

The global problem played into claims that a potentially fatal disease was easily preventable, facilitating its spread even further.

Those who believe these claims fundamentally misunderstand the science behind the virus, and undermined national health responses in a time of mass global uncertainty. 

More worryingly, the problem is not unique to Covid-19 and is liable to keep cropping up until citizens take better steps to inform themselves about cures that just don’t work.

Professor Andrew Bowie of Trinity College Dublin’s Biomedical Science Institute tells TheJournal.ie that there are many diseases like Covid-19 for which there isn’t a cure.

He says that although there are things we can do to boost our immune response to these illnesses, like having a healthy diet and getting enough sleep, that isn’t the same thing as curing them. 

“The idea that if you do these things, or if you take certain therapies or remedies, that will completely protect you is really completely untrue,” he says. 

“People that are pushing these remedies often have quite different agendas, which isn’t necessarily the best way to fight diseases.”

Home remedies

Many of the alleged ‘cures’ for Covid-19 followed a similar pattern: many took the form of ostensibly harmless home remedies, made up of inexpensive, easy-to-source ingredients.

These kinds of remedies are nothing new. Nor are they specific to certain age groups or parts of the world: every country and family has its own examples of simple measures for the management of minor health complaints, from sleeplessness, to back pain, to toothache.

If you’ve ever been sick and had an Irish mother look after you, you’re probably familiar with the taste of flat 7up. Flat 7up has all of the traits of a typical home remedy: it’s cheap, readily available, and a safe, familiar product consumed by millions. Its ingredients are reassuringly natural, yet mystifying enough to anyone who hasn’t accrued a decent knowledge of medicine or nutrition.

Dublin-based GP Dr Maitiu O Tuathail says that home remedies like flat 7up act as a form of self-care when someone is experiencing a mild viral illness.

“What a lot of these home remedies do is treat the symptoms, as opposed to the cause,” he explains.

“When you have the common cold or even the flu, there’s a range of symptoms that come with that. If cough is a particular problem, for example, then I’d actually recommend to patients to take honey and lemon.”

In this instance, the mix of honey and lemon act to suppress the cough that comes when a person catches the cold or flu virus – rather than stopping the virus itself. But there is a limit to society’s collective belief in the tonic qualities of flat 7up and honey and lemon. Neither are claimed to be a remedy for any life-threatening illnesses and a doctor like O Tuathail would never recommend one as a cure.

“The first thing I’d say about Covid is there’s no cure or no treatment,” he points out.

“What people should be doing if they develop a fever or cough or any kind of viral like symptoms, is contact their GP so we can get you tested.”

Viral cures

The number of mooted cures for Covid-19 have dwindled both in Ireland and internationally in recent months.

According to the #CoronaVirusFacts Alliance, so-called ‘cures’ for the virus were debunked more than 400 times in over 40 countries.

Some of them appeared in Ireland, where we saw inaccurate claims that drinking tea or a baking soda and lemon drink, or taking sips of water every 15 minutes were possible remedies for or protections from the new coronavirus.

These ‘cures’ included taking more supplements like vitamins B and C, zinc, or essential oils. More often, they involved normal household foods, like vinegar, lemon, honey, onion, brown sugar, coffee, orange peel, pepper, and chicken soup. And there were occasional references to alcohol, like whiskey and vodka, or drugs like cannabis and cocaine.

Some cures – like the herbal tea allegedly “promoted” by Dr Li Wenliang, who first raised concerns about the virus in China and later died from it – crossed continents and language barriers as they went viral in countries where the pandemic took hold.

Others contained ingredients specific to the country where the claim was made, like quina tea in Brazil, or “Africa tea” in Nigeria, offering vulnerable people false reassurance that help was not too far away.

One originating on Facebook in Kenya, suggested that neem leaves - popularly known as “mwarubaini” in Swahili – could cure Covid-19. Another from north Africa proposed camel milk and urine as a remedy.

All operate on the same basis as home remedies for illnesses like cold and flu, and often include the same ingredients, which have wrapped themselves around an entirely new virus.  

‘Uncertainty gap’

It’s hard to ascertain precisely how many of these types of claims there were.

Many of the ‘cures’ on Poynter’s website were the same alleged remedy translated into different languages, while others contained similar ingredients with one or two divergences.

However, one can deduce from the rate at which they were debunked that such rumours peaked in March and April, as Covid-19 really began to spread across the world, before dying down as information about the virus became more available.

The trend tallies with what Shane Timmons of the Behavioural Research Unit at the Economic and Social Research Institute describes as society’s Covid-19 “uncertainty gap”.

“If you think about the times when misinformation was strongest during the pandemic, a lot of it came at the start, when people were a bit uncertain about how the coronavirus started to transmit among people,” he says.

Some research also suggests that the extent to which a piece of information could be helpful, if it’s true, can also determine whether people share it on social media.

This is probably why so many Covid-19 ‘cures’ ended up travelling so widely: most people are unlikely to have believed in them fully, but many passed them on just in case.

“It’s distinct from people being able to tell whether something is true or false,” Timmons explains.

“It’s more that if something is true, a person’s followers and friends will be interested in it, and that drives a sharing behaviour.”

The ‘Alkaline Diet’

But beyond people looking out for one another, there’s a more sinister basis to some of the claims that began to be passed around.

The spread of so many false cures during the pandemic echoed a similar proliferation of misinformation online in the form of ‘alternative treatments’ for serious illnesses like cancer, HIV, arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

Much of this has been fuelled by social media and a rise in scepticism towards the pharmaceutical industry, whom conspiracy theorists paint as a sinister behemoth acting out of self-interest against the public good.

False cures have become a particularly lucrative enterprise in recent years, as social media influencers have sought new products to monetise their posts.

Last year, the Rubberbandits’ Blindboy Boatclub highlighted the practice when he undertook an investigation and found three Instagram influencers were willing to promote a ‘healthy’ drink containing the poison cyanide.

Others have made millions through undermining evidence-based medicine, by claiming that alternative – often natural – treatments are even more effective.

“The challenge is that evidence-based medicine doesn’t have all of the answers,” says Dr Robert O’Connor, head of research at the Irish Cancer Society.

“We don’t have a cure or a preventative treatment for cancer, or Covid, at the minute.”

In one case, the DNA beneath a fake Covid-19 cure even appeared to have its roots in a false remedy for cancer.

The well-travelled Covid-19 ‘cure’, which made it to Ireland and and places like the Philippines, Mexico, Nigeria and Colombia, suggested that Israelis had successfully fought the virus by mixing baking soda and lemon and drinking it.

The claim suggested that the tea will “alkalize” a person’s diet – likely stemming from another discredited theory, known as the ‘Alkaline Diet’, which claimed that our bodies are too acidic and need to be fixed by eating more alkaline foods.  

O’Connor believes it is “no coincidence” that a fake cure for Covid-19 would borrow elements from fake cures for cancer.

“Many of these things are touted by the same individuals, who simply re-purpose the information and the beliefs that they have from one disease to another,” he says.

“They have no technical knowledge as to why certain things simply could not be true. This is ever-present, and it’s a it’s a growing challenge for people that are involved in trying to reduce the burden of different diseases.”

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‘Look at the science’

Dr Eileen Culloty of Dublin City’s Institute for Future Media and Journalism explains that the problem with false Covid-19 cures is exacerbated by the increasing number of people who seek out health information online.

“If the medical experts aren’t certain, it creates an environment for people to look for alternative sources that will offer it to them,” she says. “They can say ‘take this, it will protect you’.”

Whether the infodemic of false cures can be combated may depend on people accepting that the internet doesn’t have all the answers, but also focusing on what we do know about Covid-19.

Culloty notes how rumours tend to spread particularly in times of uncertainty and confusion, adding that stopping them may be as simple as acting on the good intentions people have when they share misinformation in the first place.

“One of the things we can think about is to remind people that you shouldn’t share advice unless you know that it’s good advice, and unless it’s backed up by some evidence,” she says.

When it comes to a ‘cure’, Professor Andrew Bowie urges people to be wary of definitive statements that taking certain things or drinking types of teas are going to protect you.

“It’s just quite a dangerous statement, because we know so little about this virus,” he says.

“A healthy lifestyle, I think, is much more important than any kind of you position you take that medicines in general are a bad thing.

“It’s really important to look at the science behind these remedies, and to see if there’s any science in them. Often there isn’t.”

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Through 2016, deep fakes, Brexit and Trump, Ireland did not see misinformation in the same way or at the same level as other jurisdictions.

But since the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed, TheJournal.ie FactCheck has debunked or examined 75 claims about the coronavirus. Through that work, we have been able to track the pandemic’s impact on Ireland’s susceptibility to and relationship with fake news.  

In this series, we will investigate some of the more notorious stories – who started them, and what effect they had on the population? We interrogate the atmosphere and tools that allowed the messages to spread – their R number as scary as Covid-19’s.

This new coronavirus may not be with us forever, but misinformation could be one of its deadly after-effects.

 So now we ask: Is Ireland changed forever? See the full series here.

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