Robert Ostergard By: Robert Ostergard
Associate Professor
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24 Apr 2020 : The Dictators' Cures

Yesterday's pronouncement by Donald Trump that people should contemplate using disinfectant and sun to cure themsleves of a COVID-19 viral infection has marked another low point in the credibility of the administration. It was hard to believe the credibility could get lower, but, alas, he found a way to do it. To be fair, he backtracked on that claim today, stating that his response was sarcasm. What he really meant will be subject to speculation beyond his original and last statement. However, around the world his credibility sunk lower with world leaders who had wanted to see the United States as a leader in the pandemic. That ship probably sailed yesterday into the Bermuda Triangle, never to be seen until we dredge up the idea during the next pandemic episode.

Sadly, Trump is not the only one touting cures for COVID-19 infections. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro repeated teh claims of the Trump administration that promoted hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the virus. Venezuela's President Nicholas Maduro has advoated for a homemade treatment of ginger lemon tea to cure those infected with the virus. Iran's Revolutionary Guard announced that it could detect COVID-19 infection using a magnetic field and "bipolar virus." A BJP party hack Narayan Chatterjee was detained by Indian authorities for holding a cow urine consumption competition as "cow urine parties" brought people together to drink it because some Hindus believe it has medicinal properties. Tanzania's President John Magufuli limited social gatherings, but simultaneously instructed people to "pray away" the diseae in large groups.  Madagascar's President Andry Rajoelina recently advocated the use of a plant-based cure that could "change the history of the world." The Governor of Nairobi Kenya advoacted the use of alcoholic drinks to cure the virus. He included bottle of cognac in food handouts for the poor. Hennessey cognac had to warn people against using the alcohol as a cure. In Nigeria, the Health Minister Osagie Ehanire had to intervene when the traditional ruler of the Kingdom of Ife claimed a combination of plants and onions, African peppers, and neem tree were effective; he also said the pandemic had been told and predicted as early as June of last year.

Fundamentally, on a broader scale beyond Trump and his predilictions for showmanship, a more important question arises: why do leaders keep floating false cures and treatments for disease? This subject is something I am working on and am open to collaboration. It is worth examining why leaders engage this response when few, if any of them, have the background to recommend treatment for anything.

This behavior is not new. Those of us who wrote about pandemics and epidemics during the upswing of HIV/AIDS in the 1990s and 2000s remember the slew of false hope cures to come down the pipeline from formal leaders, informal leaders, charlatans, crackpots, and anybody who had a public platform. Amongst them was The Gambia's dictator Yahya Jammeh. During his despotic reign over The Gambia, Jammeh, with a high school education, claimed a mixture of herbs and spices would cure HIV. The mixture was put on patients' skin and swallowed, helping to induce violent fits of vomiting. He would also pray over patients while they received this treatment.

So why do leaders do this? More research is needed really, but a few ideas come into play.

-- Ego: leaders seek to make sure their populations see them as the highest power, the all-knowing power who will lead them through any crisis.

-- Population dependency: leaders seek to make people dependent upon them, solidifying their base of support while trying to demonstrate how invaluable they are to the people. This approach can help head off any attempts to oust the political leader who is seen as the country's "savior."

-- Political acumen and survival: leaders may tout false cures to curry favor with political groups that hold political power in the leader's clientelistic base of support. Losing their support may mean losing the country's leadership.

These are not the only potential reasons, but they provide a base for thought for now. Leaders around may have the political savvy to gain power by election or by force; what they do to retain that power is often times a little less straight forward.



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