The Infodemic: Pseuodohealth shops struggle during pandemic; Siberian city says pollution saved it from coronavirus

Isobel Cockerell


Welcome back, and a very special welcome to all our new subscribers. We are tracking how global disinformation is shaping the world that is emerging from the lockdown. Sign up to receive the Infodemic every Monday and Friday.

Below are a few narratives — both real and fake — that have grabbed our attention and deserve yours.

It’s Isobel Cockerell here, taking over from Natalia for the day. 

Despite all the fake cures out there, the pandemic has been tough for longtime purveyors of pseudohealthcare – especially those with brick-and-mortar clinics.

Clients, who used to come in for unproven treatments like ozone therapy, vitamin injections and UV light exposure, have dwindled as a result of social distancing measures.

“People are afraid to go in – especially for naturopathic appointments, which isn’t really primary care – it’s all superfluous,” said Britt Marie Hermes, a former alternative medicine practitioner, who has been watching how her old colleagues are reacting to Covid-19.

In Mexico — where lockdown is easing, despite climbing case numbers — the country’s myriad “alternative” health clinics have started up again, vying for international clients. 

“The U.S./Mexico border is open… and so are we!” exclaimed the website of Tijuana’s Hope4Cancer clinic this weekend, inviting terminal patients to travel for a whole host of unproven “miracle” treatments. Tijuana has, so far, recorded 643 Covid-19 deaths – though it is not, as President Donald Trump falsely claimed this weekend, the most heavily infected place in the world. 

A few hundred miles down the road, in the city of Mexicali, where hospitals are overwhelmed with coronavirus cases, a local clinic claimed on social media that it had found the cure for Covid-19. According to local reports, it promised followers that it could offer an attractive alternative to staying in Mexico’s crowded emergency wards.

The clinic was then shuttered by the authorities, after locals complained. Health officials seized several bottles of the supposed cure. As for what they contained, no one knows – the doctor reportedly kept the product under lock and key until it was taken away. 

I’ve written before about how anti-vaxxers became radicalized, after French president Emmanuel Macron made several key inoculations obligatory. Now, their rhetoric has reached Africa. A false claim that Macron has announced that visitors to Europe need to be vaccinated before traveling has been spreading fast in several African nations. The French Ministry of foreign affairs and the European Commission have debunked the claim – though the posts have already been shared thousands of times.

We’ve covered Jair Bolsonaro’s obsession with hydroxychloroquine since the beginning of the pandemic. Now, the Brazilian president has a new favorite unproven Covid-19 remedy: the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin. “I think the results are even better than chloroquine, because it kills all the worms,” he said last week in a statement. The deworming drug isn’t recommended by Brazilian health authorities, but the magazine Piauí reports that doctors in the country’s north and northeast regions have begun including it in kits given to all Covid-19 patients. Production and consumption of ivermectin in Brazil have skyrocketed in recent months.

  • Context: Politicians all over the world – from Madagascar to India and the U.S. – have touted fake or unproven coronavirus remedies. There’s a simple reason for this: bad science can be good PR. 

“You can hide from coronavirus here,” reads a Photoshopped image of a pin pointing to Bratsk, one of the most polluted places in Russia. An Instagram account that shares local news from the Siberian city published the edited screenshot from Google Maps, claiming that the levels of carbon and fluorine in the air were so high there that they would kill the Covid-19 virus. “Residents of Bratsk can sleep soundly.”

  • Context: While Moscow accounts for more than half of Russia’s total confirmed coronavirus cases 537,000 cases, the regions are experiencing an uptick in numbers — and the same goes for the amount of fake stories circulating. Of course, there is no evidence that Bratsk’s high levels of pollution will prevent the spread of the virus.

Lastly, this morning we woke up to the news that Maria Ressa, founder of the Philippines-based news site Rappler – with whom we are proud to be editorial partners – has been convicted of cyber libel by a Philippines court. The decision is a devastating blow for press freedom, and a failure of justice and democracy. If she loses the appeal, Ressa, alongside former Rappler reporter Rey Santos Jr, could face six years in prison. We stand with Maria Ressa and the Rappler team. 

If you are not familiar with their journalism, here’s a good place to start: In late April, Rappler produced this excellent feature on President Rodrigo Duterte’s propaganda machine and the Covid-19 pandemic, during which he threatened to “shoot dead” anyone who broke the country’s quarantine measures.  

As always, it takes a team to bring you this newsletter: Gautama Mehta, Alexandra Tyan, Katia Patin and Rachel Sherman contributed to this one.  

Have a good week, Isobel Cockerell 
Reporter, Coda Story