During the coronavirus pandemic, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has drawn attention for violating social media policies against sharing fake news and misinformation. His Facebook page, which has been blocked for the past month, is another outlet the president has added to his foxhole of Chavist communication. More than 115 media outlets in the country have shut down during his presidency. According to watchdogs including the Press and Society Institute (IPYS) and Public Space, censorship and government control of the media has increased during the pandemic. In a report titled The Virus and Censorship, published by the IPYS in March, 25 digital media outlets are recorded as having been blocked in 2020. This in addition to the rise in journalist arrests and the 374 cases of violations of freedom of expression and information.
The management and release of information concerning the pandemic have been concentrated in the political apparatus of the government, denying technical and scientific voices a platform. While government control over the media increases, Maduro has appeared on the dais of the national television channels almost daily in a self-appointed role of expert, holding forth on scientific and medical matters while espousing miracle cures for the coronavirus and laying out conspiracy theories over the spread of the virus.
“A weapon of war”
Before Covid-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) and at a time when Latin American countries remained relatively untouched by its advance, Maduro flew the flag for a theory that the novel coronavirus discovered in a Wuhan market was a “weapon of war” directed against China. “There is much global analysis that shows the coronavirus could be a strain created for biological warfare against China,” he said in February 2020. “We have to raise our voices, call attention to this and sound the alarm. Let us hope that the coronavirus is not a weapon of war being used against China and against the people of the world in general.”
Herbs, lemon and ginger
Last March, when according to official data fewer than 100 coronavirus cases had been reported in Venezuela, Maduro announced that so-called scientist Sirio Quintero had found a supposed cure for Covid-19. A concoction of lemongrass, elderberry, lemon and ginger would see off the virus according to Quintero, who had previously suggested the same herbal remedy could cure cancer. Maduro described him as “doctor,” despite Quintero lacking any recognized medical qualifications, and invited him to the presidential palace of Miraflores. Quintero’s references are listed on the pro-government website Aporrea, where he is a regular columnist. He claims to have studied philosophy of science in Italy and Germany and applied nanotechnology in biomedicine and toxicology in academies in Germany and Russia. Quintero’s biography also credits him with inventing “the protocol of bioelectric medicine” and “human re-constitutive wave genetics.” A Twitter post advertising Quintero’s Covid-19 “cure” and containing links to his articles that stated that coronavirus was an “intracellular parasite” designed “by the imperial powers” for use as a weapon of bio-terrorism were deleted from the social media site. That was the first yellow card for Maduro’s irrepressible discourse.
Chloroquine, ozone therapy and homeopathic drops
While lacking the fervor of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and former US president Donald Trump, leaders representing his political antithesis, Maduro nonetheless aligned himself with them in support of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine – treatments for malaria and lupus – despite medical evidence that they are ineffectual against Covid-19. Against international recommendations, the drug was included in a treatment kit, along with others lacking medical backing of efficacy such as Ivermectin, and distributed at isolation centers for people with possible cases and asymptomatic patients who had already been treated with other medicines. Maduro also supported other experimental therapies and was on the verge of incorporating them into the Health Ministry’s public treatment plans. These included Interferon alfa-2b, an antiviral drug developed in Cuba; homeopathic drops also from Cuba; plasma treatment; ozone therapy and alternative medicines, none of which have enough scientific evidence to be considered effective against Covid-19.
“The Colombian virus”
Maduro also shared theories about the propagation of the virus that were more to do with his political stance than with epidemiology. The return of Venezuelan migrants from Colombia to the country during the first months of the pandemic – some 160,000 throughout 2020, according to figures from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs – was held up by Maduro as the cause of the spread of the coronavirus in the country. “We are under attack from the Colombian virus that [Colombian President] Iván Duque is sending with the trocheros [people using illegal border crossing routes],” Maduro said in July. “No other country in the world is subjected to an invasion of the virus from another country.” The Venezuelan leader also described migrants returning from Colombia as “biological weapons.”
“Nullify the virus 100%”
On October 25, 2020, Maduro stated that Venezuelan scientists had discovered a molecule called TR-10, which was capable of “destroying” coronavirus. “Venezuela has produced a medicine that nullifies the virus 100%,” he said via social media with a picture of a vial containing a yellow liquid. Without providing any medical backing, Maduro claimed he had initiated the process of certification with the WHO to “ratify the results obtained by the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research (IVIC).” The active ingredient of the molecule is a derivative of a plant-based ursolic acid, which is not harmful to humans and has been tested against hepatitis B, human papillomavirus infection and Ebola, and which has been investigated by the IVIC in in-vitro virus replication studies against Covid-19.
The tears of Doctor Hernández
The latest treatment to receive the presidential seal of approval against coronavirus is Carvativir, better-known in Venezuela as the “tears of Doctor José Gregorio Hernández,” a name bestowed by Maduro in honor of the famed 19th-century physician beatified by the Catholic Church. Carvativir is a thyme-based oral treatment that, according to Maduro, “neutralizes the cells of the virus.” It has been distributed across the country and will be available in pharmacies after Maduro insisted it had met all the necessary pharmaceutical, biological and molecular standards. “It can be used as a prophylactic, to strengthen the immune system. It is used curatively and therapeutically in all cases: asymptomatic, mild, moderate, serious and very serious, and for post-Covid treatment.” Maduro claimed the miracle drops had been developed at the IVIC. However, a statement issued by researchers at the institute said that they had no knowledge of these studies.
English version by Rob Train.