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How To Debunk Coronavirus 'Natural Remedies' With Your Family

"Pandemic panic" can be the reason behind their belief.
Many online are sharing anecdotes from their older family members about supposed cures for COVID-19.
monkeybusinessimages via Getty Images
Many online are sharing anecdotes from their older family members about supposed cures for COVID-19.

We’re still a long way from treating COVID-19 with a vaccine, but that hasn’t stopped silver, garlic, and salt water rinses from being touted as coronavirus natural cures.

Public health agencies from Canada and the U.S. have made it clear that there is “no scientific evidence,” as a U.S. health agency puts it, that will back alternative medicine as valid treatments for the respiratory disease. Yet, natural health products continue to pick up steam as “cures,” in spite of the official word, with many online discovering their family members are buying into the idea.

It’s a concerning development for parents who might be getting hassled by family members to use natural treatments on their kids, as well as Canadians whose older parents may be more susceptible to dubious claims.

Shutting down coronavirus myths doesn’t take much work, but think twice before you take your mom to task for being gullible. There are perfectly logical reasons why someone would put their faith in home remedies, according to psychology expert Steve Joordens. Understanding why a family member puts their faith in garlic can lead to more productive conversations than chastising them.

Natural ‘remedies’ calm pandemic panic

The University of Toronto-Scarborough professor suggests our universal desire for comprehension may cause our brains to kick into overdrive when things go awry.

“When we can’t predict or understand things, we start to obsess about them,” Joordens told HuffPost Canada.

With closures across Canada, panic-buying sprees clearing grocery shelves, unprecedented changes to work-home life, and no vaccine available yet, feeling coronavirus anxiety can lead someone to accept any theories they stumble across. It’s easy for people to latch onto solutions that feel familiar, such as believing a household ingredient can cure what ails them.

Confirmation bias is another reason someone might turn to home remedies, Joordens suggested. Like wearing lucky underwear to help a hockey team win or only picking certain lottery numbers, superstitious mindsets are incredibly common.

“If that thing works, it really impresses them. Even if it works by coincidence. When it doesn’t work, they’re really generous,” Joordens said. “If they take grandma’s remedy and it takes [a while to] lose their symptoms, they might say, ‘It takes three days for grandma’s remedy to kick in.’”

Should you burst their bubble?

While it’s OK to have different views on medicine, a pandemic isn’t the time to allow misinformation to flourish. Making sure your relatives are aware of what public health authorities are saying is important, as well as debunking any contradictions they say.

But before you start laying into your loved one’s beliefs, take into account what motivates their support for the alternative treatment and what the health product in question is. There’s a difference between a family member who is over-enthusiastic about turmeric — a spice with proven immunity-boosting benefits — and a family member who keeps drinking silver because Pastor Jim Bakker convinced them to buy it. While a love for turmeric may require a gentle reminder that the spice has perks, but isn’t a miracle cure, a harmful practice like eating silver needs a firm rebuke and an immediate intervention.

Watch: Fraudster televangelist Jim Bakker hawks fake coronavirus cure. Story continues below.

For health products with proven track records, Joordens said going along with the proponent doesn’t do any harm, as long as they’re also following protocol.

“We are all struggling for some sort of level of control. I don’t see the harm in herbal-based remedies, at least,” he said. Even if these remedies don’t cure COVID-19, they can help boost one’s overall immunity to common viruses.

Being culturally sensitive is important too. Chinese traditional medicine has many practitioners who may see their approach as just as authoritative as a Western one. Indigenous peoples in Canada may turn to traditional medicine for support getting through the pandemic panic; past government failures during health crises and current shortages may make current conventional health protocol seem inaccessible.

However, it’s worth addressing with family that holistic health should be a supplement to overall wellbeing, rather than a primary strategy or status as a proven cure, where there currently aren’t any.

It’s time to put your foot down if you notice two red flags: loved ones endangering themselves, or they choose natural cures over expected health and safety measures (which is different from not having access to proper protocol).

Dangerous myths, like drinking bleach or ingesting cocaine to cure COVID-19 are widely circulated, but can do serious harm.

Neglecting protocol like social distancing or refusing to wash their hands is a sign their credence in a herbal remedy has gone too far.

Take an improv approach

If you need to debunk disinformation, arguing might not help. Known as the backfire effect, challenging someone’s worldview might make them dig their heels in.

If you’re confronting a family member, it can be helpful to take an improv approach to the conversation by highlighting their factual statements and adding your own with a “Yes, and ...” start to your statement.

As NBC writer Bob Kulhan points out, saying yes doesn’t validate what they’re saying as true or agreeing with the speaker, more than it’s acknowledging that the speaker is heard. This approach can make a dialogue feel more respectful.

For example, if a family member says that rinsing their throat with salt water made them feel better, it may be helpful to respond, “Yes, and studies have shown that gargling has an anti-viral effect, but won’t kill viruses.”

Or, if a family member suggests eating raw garlic will fight coronavirus, replying with an acknowledgement that yes, the World Health Organization (WHO) does recognize it as a healthy food, and ... WHO also states garlic won’t prevent catching COVID-19.

This way, you can come to an agreement about the positive immune-boosting properties a scientifically-researched product has, while also making sure everyone understands there are no proven cures for COVID-19 yet.

Be mindful of how generations communicate

On the subject of misinformation and older individuals, Net Literacy founder Daniel Kent has emphasized treating elders with kindness and non-confrontationally.

“I think it’s fundamentally about treating [older people] with concern and respect. Recognizing that ... perhaps they had the best of intentions, but the execution on their part perhaps wasn’t the most, the most thoughtful and mindful,” he told Buzzfeed.

If you know an elder in your family could feel sore or ashamed if they’re told they’re wrong or were fooled about something, it could help to break the news to them privately and by pointing out that you understand where they’re coming from, such as how you relate to their anxieties over their wellbeing, or their worries about society in general.

For example, if an aunt shares a video on WhatsApp claiming that chewing garlic cures COVID-19, messaging her directly will help her save face.

Show them reputable sources

Sometimes relatives might believe an authority figure over someone close to them. Presenting them with articles that scientifically debunk bad health advice or what actions those in political positions have taken to curb myths might convince them to slow their roll.

Reputable sources like Snopes keep a running tab on common coronavirus cure myths that are hard to argue against.

Encourage news literacy, as family members may have been convinced by fake news sources; a viral meme falsely representing the Canadian government claimed that drinking warm water prevented COVID-19. WhatsApp threads are especially prone to sharing misinformation among families, for which this fake news checklist can come in handy.

Have a relative who’s too stubborn and won’t listen to science? That’s a fairly common experience. A study led by a Yale Law School researcher found that “cultural cognition,” or a bias one has towards those similar to them, plays more of a role than scientific facts when swaying someone on what should be a topic like climate change.

In this case, consider appealing to their values. Ask other family members or community members who they may have a lot of common ground with to talk to them instead.

If all else fails and you have kids to consider, it might be worth agreeing to disagree with your family member and ask them not to share their coronavirus myths with children who may be easily influenced. Should they be neglecting protocol like hand-washing, it could be worth social distancing from them until the pandemic blows over.

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