When the staggering proportions of the challenges brought by the current pandemic became clear, some saw a potential silver lining: perhaps now science, the only sure way to find our road back to safety and health without a massive loss of life, would be taken seriously into account by policy makers and lawmakers all around the world. Alas, it was too much to hope for: indeed, while the trappings, symbols and even the language of science were duly lionized by would-be leaders and other political figures, the content was, quite often, conspicuously absent. Here in Brazil, there have been some notable examples in the last month alone.
One of the greatest classics of Brazilian literature is a short novel from the 1800s called “The Alienist”, by Machado de Assis. It’s a delicious satire of pseudoscientific pretension and quackery. The novel’s “hero”, if one can call him that, the eponymous Alienist, is in charge of an asylum called “The Green House”. So, when both Houses of the Brazilian Congress agreed, during the last week of November, to bathe its walls in green light to celebrate homeopathy, the connection, unintended as it may well have been, was inevitable.
November 21st is officially recognized here in Brazil as National Homeopathy Day. It was on this date, in the year 1840, that a French homeopath – the first apostle of homeopathy’s founder Samuel Hahnemann to Brazil – set foot in Rio de Janeiro.
This particular flavour of pseudoscience has a colorful history in the tropics: it was embraced by both the spiritualist movement (spirit guides would dictate homeopathic prescriptions through entranced mediums) and the military.
As a matter of fact, it was during the military dictatorship of 1964-1985 that homeopathy was accepted by the Federal Board of Medicine as a bona fide “medical practice”, on a par with, say, cardiology or obstetrics. It was a curious historical convergence of right-wing imposition by the so-called “homeopathic generals”, and a pervasive New Age feeling among young left-wing doctors, formed during the “crazy” 1970s.
Usually, the celebration of November 21st is left to the Ministry of Health. This year, however, the Brazilian Medical Homeopathic Association (AMHB) reached out to Congress leaders, perhaps in an attempt to eschew any association with Jair Bolsonaro’s government. The campaign launched by the greening of the Houses had as its slogan “Treat Yourself with Homeopathy”. It did not say for what conditions, but one can hardly ignore that right now there is a single disease that is on everyone’s mind.
It is probably not a coincidence that the Homeopathy campaign and the Congress lighting up green happened right after the launch of the “Counter-dossier on Homeopathic Evidence”, by the Institute Question of Science (IQC). The Counter-dossier was written as a reply to the AMHB’s report that claims to present “scientific evidence for homeopathy”, offering several “scientific articles” to prove it. IQC, together with a team of collaborators which includes Prof Edzard Ernst (University of Exeter, UK), the world’s leading international authority on alternative medicine, published a counter-dossier, in which the authors took apart homeopathic claims one by one, pointing out all methodological flaws and fallacies used in the original work.
It is also rather curious that, while the Congress turns green to promote homeopathy, it has never done so to promote environmental policies, or to promote awareness on the protection of the Amazon Forest and the Wetlands, recently seriously damaged by fire.
In the Executive branch, the Ministry of Health has been working hard to promote false information about COVID-19 to the Brazilian population – even if it means erasing sound advice.
In the middle of November, the official Ministry Twitter account replied to a citizen’s question about what to do when you have symptoms – surprisingly, offering the right information!
The reply stated that there was no vaccine or specific medication, and that the best tools were social distancing, avoiding crowds and wearing a mask. The tweet went viral, but just as Brazilians began to see a glimmer of hope, the Ministry deleted the tweet, apologized for giving “wrong” information, and replaced the scientific information with their customary nonsense: go as quickly as possible to the nearest healthcare unit, and get your Covid medication kit. The Covid medication kit consists of our old friend hydroxychloroquine, plus azithromycin, ivermectin, vitamin D, vitamin C and zync. The “corrected” tweet made no mention of masks, nor of social distancing.
Finally, to cap off a superb month of action – or rather omission – from the Ministry of Health, several national newspapers have published pieces about the substantial rise in the number of cases and hospitalizations over the past weeks, leading scientists to worry about a potential healthcare crisis after the holidays, if nothing is done to raise awareness of the population about the dangers of Christmas and New Year’s family gatherings and parties. While the press has been interviewing scientists and science communicators, there has been no official statement from the Ministry. There are also no clear guidelines for self-isolation and quarantine measures. Meanwhile, President Jair Bolsonaro stated that he is not getting a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available, that vaccination is not to be mandatory, and that wearing a mask is useless.
Unfortunately, this is what happens when pseudoscience is institutionalized in the Federal Government. In Brazil, we are worried that it is not the pandemic that is going to kill us – instead, we fear we are more likely to die from a combination of arrogance and stupidity. And sadly, as we do, the 40% of Brazilians who still support Bolsonaro will applaud.
Between ignorance and vanity-fuelled wishful thinking, our authorities seem to have all the answers – unfortunately, it’s all the wrong ones.