Strange beliefs, fake news and blame in public crises: from the Great Plague to Covid-19

Since COVID-19 appeared, we’ve seen a lot of false cures, strange beliefs and fake news, so much so that the World Health Organisation has declared an ‘infodemic’. Throughout history, we’ve seen similar responses when people are facing new dangers they can’t control and from which the authorities can offer little protection. This is only natural: we’re prepared to accept them because they restore a sense of control and certainty when we feel anxious and powerless.

Beliefs about the causes of a crisis are often linked to existing conflicts, political beliefs or prejudices. For COVID-19, there are those who blame the rollout of 5G, believing the technology weakens our immunity or somehow spreads the virus. Other have suggested it was created by the Chinese either to stop the Hong Kong protestors or, according to Brazil’s education minister, to achieve world domination. Other have suggested Bill Gates, the US military, the Jews, or some other unspecified elite trying to cause a global crash, reduce the population or boost drug company profits. When the Spanish flu epidemic began in 1918, just before the end of World War 1, there were rumours the Germans had spread it as a weapon. The Great Plague of 1665 broke out while Britain was at war with the Dutch, and it was widely believed the disease entered England when a crate of silks from the Netherlands was opened. Jack the Ripper was killing his victims at a time of anti-Semitism in the East End of London. Fuelling the suspicion that the Ripper was a Jew, the Times reported the Talmud requires that a Jew who sleeps with a Christian must kill and mutilate her. There was also the belief candles made from human fat were used by thieves and murderers in Germany and Russia (where many Jewish immigrants had come from) to put people into a deep sleep.

COVID-19 has also seen a plethora of fake tests, cures and prevention strategies. Messages have spread saying that if you can hold your breath for 10 seconds you don’t have the virus, while a Camberwell church sold plague protection kits for £91 each to over 1,000 people, consisting of a bottle of oil (mixed with cedarwood, hyssop and prayer) and a piece of red yarn. Other protective measures circulating include sun-bathing and eating alkaline foods, while cures include drinking hot drinks (based on the claim that the virus is killed at over 27C), drinking water every 15 minutes to flush the virus into the belly where it will be destroyed by stomach acids, or gargling with disinfectant. Other advice includes swallowing chlorine dioxide (a bleaching agent), drinkable silver, volcanic ash, zinc formula or cocaine. The Independent reported that hundreds died in Iran after drinking methanol after rumours it cures COVID-19, while the President of Belarus has said that not only does working in the fields cure people, but there are no viruses at ice hockey matches as sport and the ice is the ‘best anti-virus medicine’. During the Spanish flu outbreak, for which there was no cure, people recommended drinking whisky, eating sugar lumps soaked with creosote, eating onions or garlic with potash, or smoking. Although there was no evidence they worked, chemists sold potions such as Thompson’s Influenza Specific and the wonderfully-named Dr Williams Pink Pills for Pink People. According to the historian Geoffrey Field, superstition was common in the Blitz, and many Londoners would carry lucky charms and sprigs of heather, or had personal routines and rules such as never wearing green or refusing to shelter with people they thought were unlucky.

The Great Plague provides many examples of strange preventatives or cures. The belief that it was spread in the air led people to carry nosegays of herbs, hold cloth soaked in vinegar to their faces, or to smoke. Since onions and garlic were believed to absorb infection from the air, they were often carried in the mouth, and one clever person even suggested filling a ship with peeled onions and floating it down the Thames when the tide was going out, thus absorbing the bad air and taking it off to sea. People also carried amulets of toad poison, charms in case it was caused by an evil spirit, or papers with the word ABRACADABRA formed into a triangle. Apothecaries sold all sorts of pills and potions said to offer a cure, while a fellow called John Allin kept a piece of gold in his mouth whenever he left the house. The belief that syphilis offered immunity from the plague even led some to try and contract it; as a result, syphilis deaths rose during the plague years.

Despite the fact our scientific knowledge has advanced, there are many similarities between how we react to the coronavirus crisis and previous mass dangers. This is because new mass dangers lead to feelings of anxiety and loss of control, which we deal with by grasping for explanations that fit our existing beliefs and attitudes, and cures that are at least available.

Mick Finlay is the author of the Arrowood series of Victorian crime novels. He is also Reader in Social Psychology, Anglia Ruskin University.

Win a signed book! – COMPETITION NOW CLOSED


To celebrate the publication of the third Arrowood book (Arrowood and the Thames Corpses – buy it here) on April 2 (UK, Ireland and other English-speaking territories) and June (N. America), I’m giving away 5 copies of Arrowood (book 1) or The Murder Pit (book 2). Your choice. Anywhere in world. Competition closes Saturday April 4th. To enter, send me a message using the contact page on this website, or follow me on Twitter (@mickfinlay2) or like my Facebook page

Origins of the terms ‘nob’ and ‘toff’

In the Arrowood books, the narrator Norman Barnett often uses the terms ‘nob’ or ‘toff’ when talking about people of a high status. These terms were common in the 19th century, and are still used in the UK today.

I’d never wondered where the terms came from until I heard a BBC Radio 4 programme Start the Week on the history of India. During the discussion, the historian William Dalrymple said that the term ‘nob’ came from the term ‘nawab’ (a governor of the Mogul Empire), from which came the 17th century term ‘nabob’ (a person who came back to Britain after becoming wealthy in India).

There are other theories as to the origin. The OED, which defines nob as ‘a person of some wealth of social distinction’ isn’t sure. It was in use as early as 1676, and might be an abbreviation of ’noble’ or ’nobleman’, or it might come from ‘nab’ meaning the head, a hat, or a coxcomb. wiktionary suggests it might come from ‘white-nob’ (“white-head”), a term for the white, powdered wigs worn by middle class people in the 1700s.

‘Toff’ is defined by the OED as ‘a person who is stylishly dressed or who has a smart appearance; a swell; (hence) one of the well-to-do, a ‘nob’.’ This source says it might derive from the 18th century ‘tuft’ (a titled student at Oxford who wore a gold tassel on their cap, also called a ‘tuft’).

So, there you go.

Reading and Writing Historical Fiction event

If you’re in the Cambridge area, do come along to this free event. Booking is essential. Saturday 26 October, 15.30 – 16.30 : Cambridge Festival Of Ideas. Reading and Writing Historical Fiction. Historical fiction panel event with authors Emma Flint, Syd Moore and Antonia Senior (Mick Finlay chairing). Followed by booksigning. At Anglia Ruskin University, East Road, Cambridge. Free tickets – booking here.