Infodemic: Fake cures from elephant dung to salt to industrial bleach; fraudulent mask exemptions in Spain

Gautama Mehta


Welcome. We are tracking how disinformation is shaping the world during the Covid-19 pandemic. Today, Coda’s Gautama Mehta will take you from Spain to Namibia and Argentina, for the latest narratives — both real and fake — that have grabbed our attention and deserve yours.

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As schools reopen, fake news stories are stoking fears that pupils will be quarantined and separated from their families. In August, multiple versions of a Facebook post appeared in the UK, the U.S, and Canada, detailing an imaginary dialogue between a concerned parent and a teacher refusing to disclose the location of a quarantined child. The post referenced legislation believed to be the UK’s Coronavirus Act 2020, which does not give school officials any such power. This week, an Urdu-language video featuring these claims gained so much traction in the British city of Bradford, where Pakistanis make up a large portion of the population, that local officials released a YouTube announcement to deny them.

A Spanish doctor is under investigation for issuing false certificates exempting people from the requirement to wear protective masks. Reporters found that, for €40, they could simply walk into a clinic in the city of Coslada, near Madrid, and receive documentation stating that they had a respiratory condition that prevented the use of a mask. No medical examination took place. Similar fake certificates have been cropping up in the U.S. for months. In July, reports emerged that the so-called Freedom to Breathe Agency was selling fraudulent cards, featuring the Justice Department’s official seal, which read: “Wearing a face mask posses (sic) a mental and/or physical risk to me. Under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), I am not required to disclose my condition to you.”

Fake Covid-19 cures continue to abound. In Namibia, claims that elephant dung can cure the virus have spread via social media, generating an online market in which it is sold for “exorbitant prices,” a government spokesman told The Namibian newspaper. In Iran, a popular preacher and practitioner of traditional Islamic medicine went on TV to state that “eating salt frequently protects from corona infection better than wearing a mask.” However, a much more dangerous pseudoscientific treatment is sweeping South America. Read on for more.

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On August 15, a five-year-old boy in Neuquén, Argentina, died of organ failure less than an hour after he was hospitalized with cardiac arrest. The doctors treating him learned from his parents that they had been giving him a substance that they thought would protect him against Covid-19. An autopsy found that it was chlorine dioxide — a form of industrial bleach.

According to Argentinian fact-checking publication Chequeado, the death of another man in August, and severe injuries sustained by two women in May and July, are also suspected to be caused by the ingestion of chlorine dioxide. 

For over a decade, people have touted this dangerous chemical compound as a cure for everything from HIV to autism and malaria. In 2006, a man named Jim Humble self-published a book, in which he referred to it as “Miracle Mineral Solution.” Humble, a former Scientologist, claims to have discovered that chlorine dioxide had astonishing medicinal properties in 1996, while on a gold-mining expedition in South America. 

Later, he founded an organization called the Genesis II Church of Health and Healing — with himself as archbishop — in order to promote it. Now, other organizations also distribute MMS. An American pastor made headlines in 2019, after it emerged that his ministry had given it to 50,000 Ugandans, including children.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the use of MMS has rocketed in South America, promoted by a wide array of public figures:

  • In June, a health official involved in leading the southern Peruvian region of Ayacucho’s coronavirus response was fired after he recommended giving chlorine dioxide to anyone with Covid-19 symptoms
  • In July, a third of Ecuador’s Catholic bishops signed a letter petitioning the government to authorize the use of chlorine dioxide as a coronavirus treatment
  • That same month, the Bolivian senate voted to approve its use, but the measure was vetoed by interim president Jeanine Áñez
  • In August, Viviana Canosa, a popular Argentinian TV presenter, appeared to drink chlorine dioxide on a talk show watched by roughly 230,000 people

Of course, the fake cure’s biggest moment came in April, when Donald Trump mused about the possibility of bleach as a coronavirus treatment, leading many to speculate that he had picked up discussion of MMS in far-right media outlets.

Last month, Genesis II co-founder Mark Grenon was arrested in Colombia with his son for illegally marketing chlorine dioxide. He faces extradition to the U.S. to face a variety of charges, including conspiracy to defraud the United States.

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Before you go:

For a glimpse at how deeply homophobia shapes politics in Poland, I recommend my colleague Katia Patin’s article on a town that was awarded $68,000 by the government after declaring itself an “LGBT-free” zone.

Many thanks to Coda’s Jamilya Asanova, Oleksandr Ignatenko and Makuna Berkatsashvili for their assistance with today’s newsletter.

We’re taking Monday off for Labor Day, but Natalia will be back in your inbox with the Infodemic on Friday.

Thanks for reading,
Gautama Mehta

Tracking the war on science around the world

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