Who pays for the COVID lies?

Donald Trump and right-wing media sold their audiences on quack COVID cures — and not the vaccine. Why?

By Heather Digby Parton


Published March 23, 2022 10:02AM (EDT)

Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that a new study, the biggest to date, has determined that the anti-parasite drug ivermectin did not prevent hospitalization or death in COVID-19 patients. I'm sure you are shocked to learn this. After all, tens of thousands of your fellow Americans insisted that it had cured them. Unfortunately, many others died after having used it in lieu of the vaccines that likely would have kept the virus from being so deadly. The "ivermectin protocol" prescribed by many doctors, largely at the request of their patients, is bunk.

"There was no indication that ivermectin is clinically useful," Edward Mills, one of the study's lead researchers and a professor of health sciences at Canada's McMaster University, told the Journal. 

The people who thought it cured them would have survived the virus anyway and those that eschewed the vaccines in favor of this drug and wound up in the hospital were placing their faith in something that didn't work. The new study clears up any confusion. If some people took ivermectin and survived COVID, it was a coincidence.

Right-wing celebrities touted the drug. Some, like notorious podcaster Joe Rogan, said that healthy people need not get vaccinated, caught the virus and lived to tell the tale. Others, such as conservative talk show host Phil Valentine, weren't so lucky.

And this wasn't the first dubious COVID cure out there. You'll remember that the first one that caught the popular imagination among the MAGA crowd was Hydroxychloroquine, a malaria and lupus drug. It, too, was highly touted by right-wing media, particularly Fox News host Laura Ingraham who took her so-called "medicine cabinet" (a couple of Fox News physicians) up to the White House to push for the government to use it as a treatment back in 2020. One of the doctors gave then President Trump "a detailed presentation" about the drug's efficacy "based on his own experiences and studies."

Trump was very impressed. He tweeted, "HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine, and it should be "put in use IMMEDIATELY. PEOPLE ARE DYING, MOVE FAST!"

He spent the next few months relentlessly pushing the drug and under pressure, the FDA granted it emergency use authorization even though the agency knew it was ineffective. Trump said he took the drug himself, for all the good it did him. But when a major study conducted on VA patients was released showing that the drug not only didn't work and it actually harmed people, Trump claimed it was a hoax study given to people who were "ready to die" as a way to hurt him politically:

As it turned out, an analysis of patients across six continents found that patients treated with the drug were more likely to develop irregular heartbeats leading to sudden cardiac death. Other reports yielded similar findings.

So the desire for that particular fake cure was eventually superseded by a new snake oil cure ivermectin, pushed by many of the same people who pushed Hydroxychloroquine:

As you can see Fox News touted ivermectin as a cure for COVID many times. They pushed Hydroxychloroquine more than 300 hundred times. It's fair to suspect that the use of these two drugs based upon bogus science and anecdotal Facebook posts with heavy promotion by Donald Trump and Fox News cost many lives. They have a large audience of gullible viewers who were more than happy to experiment on their bodies with unproven cures — but curiously didn't trust the COVID vaccines.

What's the reason for this bizarre behavior? Some of it was Trump, of course. He pushed the phony cures, even going so far as to suggest that ingesting disinfectant might be a way to "clean" the lungs of COVID. And Fox News and other right-wing media were no doubt influential. But mostly, I think it had to do with the propensity among right-wingers to dive headfirst into conspiracy theories. This study looked into some of the possible theories:

Some believe that COVID-19 is a business for health care workers (HCWs) and doctors are diagnosing every fever as COVID-19 for their benefits. Ironically, in some places, people attacked HCWs in the hospitals for not handing over the dead body immediately to the family.The claim that COVID-19 is a pre-planned project to cover the Bill Gates trackable microchip conspiracy was also raised.Myth about the origin of virus was also emergedand people also believe that government is providing false number of COVID-19 cases because a large number of cases will get more profit and donation. Many people also believe that it is from God as a punishment,the 5G technology directly transmits the virus and weaken the human immunity, and some consider that the virus is a bio-warfare weapon. In addition, the video "Plandemic" that shows that COVID-19 pandemic is a conspiracy of pharmaceutical companies to sell their products also have become viral through social media platforms adding the list of conspiracy theories.

This tracks with all the other conspiracy theories swirling around the right-wing fever swamps so I suppose it's not surprising. But what's the logic of Republicans and Fox News being anti-vax and pro-snake oil? They all got vaccinated themselves but they pushed "alternative" treatments hard while degrading the vaccines as dangerous. You still have GOP senators like Ted Cruz running around with that sad sack anti-vax "trucker convoy" that's driving in circles in the beltway for no good reason.

As the historian Rick Perlstein pointed out some time back, peddlers of quack medicine and right-wing extremists have had a long and happy relationship. Their customers and their audience are the same people. Take a look at how the "nutritional supplement" industry largely supports right-wing media, from Alex Jones to Tucker Carlson. There's a financial incentive to keep their audience believing in snake oil but it's very short-sighted. After all, telling your followers that a pill will improve their sex life probably isn't going to kill them. But pushing them to take an alternative quack cure for COVID might.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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