Coronavirus: Myths, Pseudoscience, and Racism

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The sudden discovery and spread of the Coronavirus at the start of the new year forces us to consider what is the real virus: this, or misinformation? I mean, obviously Coronavirus is the real virus. It’s literally a virus. But! It’s worth paying attention to how social media platforms have once again failed to stop the viral spread of misinformation that is making things so, so much worse. We have the outbreak of a deadly new disease happening in a secretive, despotic country, enabled by the incompetence of (mostly American) social media platforms that allow the spread of outright lies that put people’s lives in danger. It’s the Perfect Storm, if George Clooney’s boat had 7 billion people on it.

And we are talking worldwide numbers here, not just China. Yes, I know, the WHO has only thus far declared it a fairly localized epidemic, but experts are saying that it seems likely to be considered a pandemic before too long. So this does concern you and me and everyone else outside of China, though not as much as it should concern those in and around Wuhan.

Which brings me to my next point: despite all that, DON’T PANIC. Panicking doesn’t help. Ever. You are not going to die from the Coronavirus. You’re probably going to die from influenza, which we already have a vaccine for but a bunch of shitheads have convinced people they shouldn’t get it because it will make them sick or they just don’t need it. So yeah, if you die from a virus then that’s probably the one you should be worried about. Get your flu shot, you asshole.

In fact, here’s a fun game that unfortunately I can’t play because I don’t use Facebook: any time you see someone post fear-mongering shit about Coronavirus, ask them if they got their flu shot this year. Coronavirus has thus far (according to officials) killed 564 people in China, one in Hong Kong, and one in the Philippines. Influenza has killed 10 to 25 THOUSAND PEOPLE in the United States alone this season thus far. So yeah maybe mention that to the idiots you’re friends with on Facebook.

So I hope that puts it into perspective, but that doesn’t mean that this isn’t a serious problem. People in China, especially in the region around Hubei province, are right to be nervous and right to take whatever steps they can to limit their potential exposure. That means staying away from crowds, wearing a mask, and…well, that’s about it really. Wait for a vaccine to be developed, and then get that vaccine.

That brings me to the shit that does not work, and which has been spreading around social media like…well, like a virus. Is it possible to be too on the nose?

First up, Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS) is a snake oil cure-all that is sold for curing pretty much everything you can imagine — cancer, HIV/AIDS, and of course, now coronavirus. In fact, it’s just bleach, and drinking it will fuck you up, as you can imagine. QAnon YouTubers like this dumbass, who has 116,400 followers, are telling people to drink bleach to cure coronavirus. It’s madness that he even still has an account on YouTube OR Twitter, but hey, so do Nazis so . . .

Then we have the homeopaths getting in on it. And not just your local Whole Foods, but the actual government of India, blue checkmarked and all, announcing the release of a document called Homoeopathy for Prevention of Corona virus Infections, which suggests homeopathic treatment not just for the prevention of infection but for the treatment of symptoms, like rubbing homeopathic plants on your scalp.

An aside, for those who don’t know: homeopathy is made-up bullshit of the highest order. It involves taking a thing and diluting it repeatedly until there is not a single molecule left of the original, and then consuming the leftover water, on the premise that though all molecules are gone, the water might “remember” what was in it. So if anyone ever blasted a load in the shower, for instance, and years later you drink water from a tap in the same town, you are drinking homeopathic cum. And because of the other rule that “like cures like,” so if you have poison ivy the treatment would be to rub homeopathic poison ivy on it, presumably drinking homeopathic cum will ensure you will never get pregnant.

So no, homeopathy will not help prevent or cure the coronavirus, and I have to say it’s a bit of a relief that the United States isn’t the only country making an ass of themselves on Twitter but I’d really prefer India do it in a way that doesn’t put millions of lives at risk.

Finally, let’s talk about the bullshit that has led to such virulent racism over the coronavirus epidemic. No, you can’t get it by talking to a person of Chinese ancestry. No, you can’t get it by ordering products shipped through China. If that were the case, you’d have been dead weeks ago because half the things you own come from China. And no, it wasn’t manufactured by a bioweapons facility in Wuhan. There is a facility in Wuhan that studies the coronavirus — that name is not new, and is the general term applied to a myriad of diseases including the common cold — but examinations of the virus RNA suggests that the bat coronavirus being studied there shares a common ancestor from about 20 years ago with the one currently causing trouble. So this virus has most likely been out there evolving from host to host for decades. It may have come from a bat, but more likely there’s an intermediary animal that it jumped to, as with MERS, a previous virus that jumped from bat to camel to human, and SARS, which jumped from bat to civet to human.

And is this all due to China having a particularly disgusting culture? I’ve seen people passing around videos of people eating things we find strange, including bats. It is very possible that the virus sprung forth at the wet market where people buy and sell about 75 different species of wildlife. And that market was also likely influential in the spread of SARS back in the early 2000s, when the market needed to be closed to slow the disease’s progression. Unfortunately, they opened it again, and here we are again.

It is a cultural issue, because there is status in eating exotic wildlife. Many animals are also used for bullshit traditional Chinese medicine cures, which don’t work and endanger the lives of the people who take them while also depleting natural resources. The wet market should close, permanently, and the government should clamp down on the overall trade in exotic wildlife.

But is China unique in these troubles? Again, before Americans are allowed to be critical of Chinese people as a whole, we need to stop and remember that we reversed the eradication of measles because we made up a story about medicine being bad for us. We stopped government money from being used to study the ill health effects of machine guns on the population. We drink bleach to cure AIDS. “Oh, but I didn’t do that,” you might say. No, but your fellow Westerners did. A billion Chinese people didn’t wake up one day and decide to eat sick bats. Have a little fucking compassion and support the people who are suffering, and the scientists who are attempting to control this and educate the population so that it won’t happen again.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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