Almost as soon as the coronavirus broke out, people started recommending all manner of bizarre “cures.”
There was the man in Arizona, who tragically died on March 23, after consuming fish tank cleaner because Trump had claimed the chloroquine (a chemical found in the cleaner) could be a “game changer.” In England, people tried to destroy a mobile phone tower after conspiracy theories linked 5G to the coronavirus. Alexander Lukashenko, the President of Belarus, has suggested citizens drink vodka to stave off the disease. Countless memes have circulated on Facebook, advocating everything from gargling with salt water to eating garlic. There have been so many faulty claims that the World Health Organization has called it an “infodemic.”
While these “miracle cures” may spread more quickly on Facebook and Twitter, they’re nothing new.
Patience and plagues have never gone together. Legitimate cures take a frustrating amount of time for doctors and scientists to develop. When people are frightened, they may feel that’s time they don’t have, and latch on to anything that seems to help.
Back in the 14th-century, people tried all manners of supposed remedies to help ward off the bubonic plague, which was transmitted by fleas. The rich ate their emeralds, which did nothing to combat the plague, but did rip their gastrointestinal tracts and cause internal bleeding. The poor, lacking emeralds, tried drinking their own urine, or pus from their burst boils.
Doctors also applied poultices made with feces to people’s boils.
While those “remedies” sound absurd, some persist to this very day. During the 14th-century, people cut onions into pieces and placed them around their homes, hoping they might produce a scent strong enough to ward off the plague and purify the air. It didn’t then — and it still doesn’t now. Even so, a popular video shared by Mikel Afolayan on Twitter on March 22 declared that people should “get as many as possible onions” and cut them open, and place them around the house. The AFP (Agence France-Presse) has debunked that rumor.
Clearly, though, we haven’t progressed all that much in 700 years.
It’s not just onions. After Fox mentioned chloroquine on March 18, Dr. Joan Donovan, the research director of Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy tweeted that searches for quinine and tonic water (which contains quinine) had spiked. She remarked with frustration that “thousands of people think they can cure coronavirus by drinking tonic water.”
Evidence suggests it won’t work. While quinine is used to treat malaria, people imagined it would cure the Spanish Flu in 1918. During that time a merchant noted that he had sold more quinine in one day than he had in the past three years.
Even worse are the “cures” actively marketed by evil people exploiting people’s fear to make a profit off of plagues.
That act dates all the way back to the Antonine Plague in the 160s, when Alexander of Abonoteichos amassed a fortune by selling “magical” charms that would supposedly ward off the plague (they didn’t). The same was true during the Spanish Flu when people sold “paw paw pills” that promised to cure people of the disease. Hucksterism is a time-honored American tradition, dating at least back to Clark Stanley, who sold what he claimed was a cure-all of “snake oil.” When the federal investigators looked into it in 1917, they found it was a sham not merely in its ineffectiveness, but because it was comprised largely of mineral oil and beef fat and no snake oil at all.
Rest assured that before this pandemic is over, plenty of self-appointed “experts” are going to try to sell you false cures. And you may be tempted to give them a try. But if you do, the odds are very good that you will, at best, waste money, and, at worst, end up being named as a pathetic dupe in the trivia shared by future historians.
Jennifer Wright is the author of “Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them” (Henry Holt), out now.