by Kiarash Aramesh M.D., Ph.D.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been accompanied by a surge of pseudoscientific claims, sometimes made or supported by political powers. Because of the magnitude of such claims, the risks and costs they inflict, and their global presence and interconnections, health organizations need to take them seriously and address them as a part of its response to such pandemics.
The natural course of the COVID-19 infection, in which most of the patients survive, makes it a desirable playground for the promoters of pseudoscience because they can attribute the natural recovery of such patients – or escaping the infection by others – to their pseudo-treatments. Times like these, as many desperately ask for quick answers, and while some are influenced by conspiracy theories, make fertile grounds for the vulnerable to be harmed by the purveyors of health-related pseudoscience, especially in the era of fake news, alternative facts, and social media.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been fecund for various types of medical pseudoscience worldwide. For example, countries like China and Madagascar try to forge their own partially self-reliant success stories, by arguing that their not-evidence-based local medicines have been effective against the pandemic. The politicians, seemingly proud of a sense of self-reliance, promote such claims and even try to turn the national pride to cash by exporting their miracle medicines. Such self-claimed success stories look attractive to other countries that seek self-reliance and independence from so-called Western medicine.
In some other countries, politicians appeal to health pseudoscience to avoid or shorten the scientifically mandated lockdown. In the United States, President Donald Trump displays a continuous disregard for scientific medicine. For example, he says that he takes hydroxychloroquine as a preventive measure, despite the apparent lack of scientific evidence that the drug has any such qualities. He also once suggested that scientists should experiment with injecting disinfectant to patients, although he claimed later that the suggestion was sarcastic. In Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko claimed that nobody would die from COVID-19 and suggested that drinking vodka, going to saunas, and driving tractors were effective measures against the infection. In Brazil, another alpha-male politician appealed to pseudoscience to avoid lockdown measures. President Jair Bolsonaro simply continues to dismiss the epidemic by ignoring and denying scientific facts. Today, Brazil is the leading epicenter of COVID-19 in Latin America.
In many other countries, pseudoscience, science denialism, and superstitious beliefs, sometimes fueled by biopolitics, make controlling the pandemic for the health sectors, even harder than it is per se. As a conspicuous example, in Iran, promoters of so-called Islamic Medicine—although denounced by a number of religious authorities—appeal to social media to convince people that COVID-19 is a simple disease easily treatable by remedies attributed to Shiite Imams. They claim that the fear of pandemic is fictional, forged by Western powers to harm Muslims by imposing a mandatory lockdown, closing holy shrines, and finally make Muslims use harmful Western medications and vaccines.
The Iranian Ministry of Health and Medical Education has strongly deprecated the promoters of such claims. However, the ministry itself, in parallel with promoting scientific measures to fight against the pandemic, issued instructions under the name of Traditional Iranian Medicine that are not scientifically reliable and include pseudoscientific claims. It’s another example of politically supported promotion of pseudoscience in the health sector. In many other countries, the various types of pseudoscientific and superstitious schools of healing and medicine don’t miss a chance to claim success in treating or preventing the infection.
The above-mentioned surge of pseudoscience is harmful. Such harms include preventing people from taking proven scientific measures (such as social distancing). Spending time discussing and refuting these proposals exploits the already strained financial resources of patients and communities, makes fatal delays in seeking effective healthcare, imposes the side effects of fake treatments, and promotes populist political agendas that embrace pseudoscientific claims.
Global health organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) need to address pseudoscience by adopting the principle of “scientific validity” in any ethical framework for global health. Observing scientific standards in health research, public health measures, and clinical care is an ethical mandate that needs to be emphasized in the face of the current inundation of health-related pseudoscience.