Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 30 October 2020

Science is a comfort in the face of theories about eating oranges and garlic

All frontline medical staff will be able to take advantage of the offer. Victor Besa / The National
All frontline medical staff will be able to take advantage of the offer. Victor Besa / The National

As the Covid-19 coronavirus continues its devastating progress, I lack the scientific knowledge to be able to make predictions as to the extent of its impact. I leave that to the experts, though it is already obvious that at a global level there has been nothing like it in our lifetimes.

Instead, I have been looking back at another devastating illness, the plague known as the ‘Black Death’ in the mid-14th Century, a pandemic which may have affected as much as a half of the world’s population. Today, medical knowledge is much more advanced and a similar death toll seems, I hope, inconceivable. Knowledge about simple hygiene or self-distancing, coupled with the ability of governments to swing into action to limit the spread of Covid-19, offer us hope in these dark days. Our own government’s actions have been timely and measured.

Beyond the crazy theories about the origins of the disease and alleged cures, however, there are also a variety of other more disturbing ideas which are gaining credence

One similarity between the 14th Century and today, however, is the way in which unlikely explanations about the cause of the plague and odd ideas about cures and remedies gained credence.

By the mid-14th Century, the advances in medical knowledge, once led by great scientists like Ibn Sina and Al Razi, had stagnated. One suggested cause of the plague came from the medical faculty at the University of Paris which put forward the view that a conjunction of three planets in 1345 had caused a ‘great pestilence in the air.’

It was possible to avoid being infected by the plague, some argued, by not eating fruit or by avoiding ‘bad thoughts'. Some medical practitioners believed that foul smells would drive the pestilence away. And, in a forerunner of today’s ‘fake news’, a rumour spread in Europe that the whole of the population of India had been wiped out.

We can – and do – laugh at those ideas today.

There are still, though, some dangerous ideas about Covid-19 being promoted on social media and other forms of mass media that are misleading the credulous and ill-informed. In Malaysia, I hear, a popular ‘theory’ was that mandarin oranges were spreading the virus, until the government launched a campaign to stamp it out. Another ‘theory’ that gained some popularity until it was debunked was that fortune cookies spread the disease.

A collection of odd and bizarre claims have been made about alleged ‘cures’, including drinking warm water or eating garlic, ice-cream and hot soup. All are simply bunkum, but perhaps not as dangerous as the claim that drinking bleach is effective as a cure. Not only is that untrue, but drinking bleach itself can kill.

It is perfectly understandable that people are concerned, even scared. The best way to proceed, though, is to listen to and to abide by the advice given by reputable bodies such as the World Health Organisation, which has itself praised the steps being taken here in the UAE. Taking steps to avoid infection, such as social distancing, regular washing of hands and so on is the best advice.

Beyond the crazy theories about the origins of the disease and alleged cures, however, there are also a variety of other more disturbing ideas which are gaining credence. These are the conspiracy theories that have absolutely nothing to do with science and everything to do with the pointing of fingers.

A few days ago, a friend of mine stated, with absolute confidence, that '95 per cent of Americans’ believe that the virus was created by the US as a weapon to attack others. While I am generally, I would claim, fairly mild-mannered, I exploded, ranting for several minutes to my unfortunate listener about stupidity, foolishness and ignorance. The science, I yelled, was quite clear.

It is no secret that bacterial illnesses and viruses are the subject of research by numerous governments and that some have been examined for their potential as weapons. That is horrific. But medical science has clearly shown that Covid-19 is a zoonotic illness, one which began in animals and spread to human beings.

Nearly 700 years on from the Black Death, with all of the advances in science and education that have taken place, why do people still give credence to crazy ideas about mandarin oranges? More seriously, perhaps, how can apparently sensible people listen to, and believe, ludicrous theories about malign people when the scientific studies are absolutely clear?

Sometimes, I must confess, I have fleeting moments of despair about conspiracy theories that fly in the face of solid science. And then, taking a deep breath, I recognise that it is only through that science can governments, and individuals, tackle the threat that all of us now face.

A fortnight ago, in my last column, I argued that we should keep calm and carry on. Rely on trusted sources of information and science, not on ill-informed speculation, take sensible precautions and make the appropriate changes to our lifestyle. I see no reason to change that view today, but will continue to call out ludicrous ideas whenever I encounter them.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture

Updated: March 25, 2020 11:05 AM

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