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.