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Opinion | Miraculous healings and magnetic people. Brazil’s fake news is extremely bizarre.

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SÃO PAULO, Brazil – Hydroxychloroquine is not effective against Covid-19. No, definitely not. But the Brazilians are still not sure. Finally, a friend’s cousin recently posted a headline on WhatsApp claiming that all ICU beds in Miracatu City were empty because Mayor President Jair Bolsonaro’s “early treatment” – consisting of hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin and azithromycin – for Covid-19 OK, Miracatu doesn’t have a hospital. But still: how can we be sure?

This is just one of the dozen of fake news stories of Covid-19 treatments floating around on social media – including one advocating “atomized” hydroxychloroquine, Mr Bolsonaro’s new obsession. Well over a year into the pandemic, false claims are still floating around. Is it true that face masks can reduce the flow of oxygen to the lungs and cause cancer? Is the Coronavirus a China Made Biological Weapon? What about the involvement of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and George Soros? (The fact checkers were very busy.)

Even now, after half a million citizens have died, Brazilians are spreading insane claims that hospitals are empty and people are being buried alive to inflate coronavirus statistics. Last year, when the number of daily deaths skyrocketed, there were many stories of empty coffins and staged burials. It’s almost as if the Brazilians couldn’t – would not – accept that things could really be that bad, and took refuge in paranoia, suspicion, and conspiracy. In it, of course, they had instructions: Mr. Bolsonaro tried every step of the way to spread mischief and misinformation.

This may sound familiar to you. Aren’t fake news and Covid denial global problems? But Brazil has something special. An interdisciplinary group of Brazilian researchers found not only that the country was among the world’s most erroneous claims – only India and the United States have more – but that Brazil’s disinformation is remarkably isolated from other countries. This could be “strong evidence that the country is distancing itself from the ongoing scientific debate,” the researchers conclude.

That sounds right. In Brazil, some falsehoods have outweighed common sense and there is nothing we can do about it. For example, every time you walk into a supermarket, store, or even a doctor’s office, someone takes your temperature with a forehead thermometer – but shows it on your wrist. This is the crushing triumph of a fake news story claiming that infrared thermometers can damage the pineal gland of the brain.

Opinion interview
Questions about the Covid-19 vaccine and its introduction.

If that’s the official policy, then you can imagine what’s going on at home. My dad tentatively shared a video – “I wonder if it’s true” – at the start of the pandemic – claiming vinegar was better at stopping the virus than hand sanitizer. (I thought we could at least smell the objectors.) Another relative vowed to gargle salty water after attending social events because it supposedly prevents the virus from settling in the mouth and then getting to the lungs. Some Brazilians wondered if the coronavirus could be treated with aspirin. Others avoided bursting Chinese-made bubble wrap and denied themselves one of the great joys in life on the grounds that it would release virus-contaminated air.

In the last few months the misinformation about vaccines has been spreading quite predictably: Apparently, vaccines can cause 10 types of cancer, infertility, autoimmune diseases, suicidal thoughts, heart attacks, allergic reactions, blindness and “homosexuality”. They could change our genetic code. They come with a microchip (or nanobots) to collect our biometric data. And they are often made from the cells of aborted fetuses.

Personally, I love the claim that fully vaccinated people can connect to Wi-Fi networks or pair with Bluetooth devices – or that vaccines make people magnetic. (The evidence? Videos of people sticking coins on their arms.) In fact, the word “Covid” could actually be an acronym for International Certificate of Vaccination with Artificial Intelligence. (It doesn’t work in any language.)

“It’s like choosing which side of the flat earth to jump from,” said Dr. Luana Araújo, an infectious disease doctor, during the parliamentary inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic. It could have described any number of our bizarre beliefs. However, it was referring to our government’s continued promotion of ineffective drugs to prevent or cure Covid-19. And that’s the crux of the problem: if the president himself – with the help of the state apparatus – keeps spreading false information about the pandemic, one cannot expect people to be skeptical when they are told that boldo tea can cure Covid in three hours.

In the absence of a public information campaign about the virus – there is no need for it, Bolsonaro said recently because “everyone knows what is happening” – many Brazilians are forced to rely on the partial information available on social media platforms. That gives tremendous power to those peddling fake news.

For example, I often hear that vaccines and hydroxychloroquine are basically the same because neither has been scientifically proven. Mr Bolsonaro even said it a couple of times. It is of course wrong. But the deception works. Recent research has shown that almost one in four Brazilians – following the example of their president, whose response to a positive test was to reach for hydroxychloroquine – was taking a drug “as an early treatment” for Covid-19. For comparison: only 13 percent of Brazilians are fully vaccinated.

But there are limits to Mr Bolsonaro’s ability to suggest. Maybe he can make people believe in a miracle cure or deadly bubble wrap. But despite his best efforts, he cannot erase one fact: the virus killed over 520,000 Brazilians.

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