23 July 2020

From kinks to chemical cannons: the nine weirdest COVID responses

COVID-19 RedHerring

When the entire world is dealing with exactly the same mega-crisis, there are bound to be some government COVID policies that are a little more on the kooky side.

We hunted down the nine strangest interventions happening on the planet right now. In these difficult times, we hope this very silly listicle brings you some joy.

1. The one-sex-buddy policy

The country with a capital known for its risqué red light district and cannabis cafes – The Netherlands – has taken to doling out COVID-safe sex advice with refreshing candour.

Singles looking to hook up during the pandemic were advised to stick to one sex buddy at a time on a government-affiliated website.

There are two Dutch words for “sex buddy”: “seksbuddy” and “knuffelmaatje” (literally “someone to cuddle with”).

The Rijksinstituut voor Volksgezondheid en Milieu (RIVM) used both words on their webpage dedicated to Coronavirus and Sexuality.

“It is extra important that you keep the risk of the coronavirus as low as possible with intimacy and sex. For example, meet with the same person to have physical or sexual contact, for example a cuddle buddy or ‘sex buddy’,” the RIVM said.

“Make good arrangements with this person how many other people you both see. The more people you see, the greater the chance of the coronavirus.”

In the early phases of the pandemic, the public were told they could have sex with a steady partner but that single people would have to limit themselves to solo sex at a distance of 1.5m from other (we like to think consenting) people.

The relaxation of these restrictions was perhaps too well received; the RIVM took the words “seksbuddy” and “knuffelmaatje” off their website in May because it had started to be misinterpreted as encouragement to find a sex buddy.

2. “Make it a little kinky”

“The NYC Dept of Health encouraging gloryholes was not on my 2020 bingo card,” exclaimed Grant Roth, an HIV educator from Atlanta, on Twitter.

Googling “glory holes and COVID” was not on our to-do list for this week either but, hey, strange times.

This Twitter comment was referring to a three-page document released by the New York City Health Department, which detailed inventive ways to have sex without catching coronavirus.

“Make it a little kinky,” NYC Health suggested. “Be creative with sexual positions and physical barriers, like walls, that allow sexual contact while preventing close face to face contact.”

The document is really very thorough, promoting masturbation as the safest form of sex during a pandemic, followed by sex with someone you live with, and then sex with people who aren’t sniffling and coughing everywhere.

For sex workers, the NYC Health Department recommends “sexy ‘Zoom parties’ or chat rooms”.

For meetings in the nude, consider putting on your face mask, the Department advised.

“Maybe it’s your thing, maybe it’s not, but during COVID-19 wearing a face covering that covers your nose and mouth is a good way to add a layer of protection during sex.

“Heavy breathing and panting can spread the virus further, and if you or your partner have COVID-19 and don’t know it, a mask can help stop that spread.”

3. Spouting conspiracies

Pointing the finger is always a popular government response during a crisis and there’s been no shortage during COVID.

At the top levels of government in China, the US and Iran, conspiracy theories have been spreading like wildfire.

Earlier this year, US senators Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz both promoted the idea that COVID escaped from a biosafety Level 4 laboratory near the wet markets of Wuhan.

Senator Cotton said China “refuses to come clean” and was “trying to cover up the biggest story in the world”, while Senator Cruz tweeted about the media ignoring COVID’s suspicious origins.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted that patient zero might have been American and that the US army might have brought coronavirus to Wuhan.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, refused US government support in March on the basis that the US might have been responsible for the outbreak.

“I do not know how real this accusation is but when it exists, who in their right mind would trust you to bring them medication?” Khamenei said. “Possibly your medicine is a way to spread the virus more.”

Needless to say, none of the conspiracies have even a shred of evidence to support them.

4. Have a little faith

China’s health ministry and state media are promoting traditional Chinese medicine, including herbal granules and teas, as the mainstay of treatment for COVID – even though there is no evidence that these treatments work.

The State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine lists the “Jinhua Qinggan granule” (containing 12 herbs, including honeysuckle, mint and licorice) as an effective treatment for the deadly pandemic strain of coronavirus.

Other traditional medicines championed by the Chinese government include pills, powders, injectable therapies and herbal teas.

As of February, around 90% of patients with COVID in Hubei province were receiving these traditional medicines.

Some of these unproven remedies are being shipped off to Iran and Italy as a form of international aid.

We can’t emphasise enough that these traditional “treatments” have not been shown to work; the only medication to have any effect on COVID to date is the antiviral remdesivir.

The Indian government is also touting homeopathy and naturopathy as immune boosters that can protect people against COVID – and has listed a range of Ayurvedic remedies that can help treat “mild pneumonia”. (Ayurveda is a traditional form of medicine that includes yoga, massage, acupuncture and herbal medicine.)

Meanwhile, the Indonesian Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto has been criticised internationally for relying on the power of prayer as a core government strategy to fight COVID.

Back in February, Terawan said “praying is of utmost importance” in the pandemic response.

“If there are other countries protesting [our approach], just let them; it is our nation’s right to rely on the Almighty,” he said. “Why should we be ashamed of relying on the Almighty? We should not be ashamed of praying.”

More recently, the Indonesian Government got into a pickle after Agriculture Minister Syahrul Yasin Limpo claimed a eucalyptus necklace could kill COVID.

The ministry’s research agency developed the necklace after testing 700 species of eucalyptus and finding one kind that “could kill the coronavirus”, according to the minister for agriculture.

The product could kill 42% of coronavirus particles if worn for 15 minutes and 80% in 30 minutes, the minister claimed.

Mardani Ali Sera, a political opponent, voiced fears that Indonesia would “become a laughing stock to the world’s public” if these kinds of claims were made without trials, but had a bob each way and said the product could be a major export if proven to work.

In early July, the Agriculture Ministry Research and Development Department backtracked on the claim that its eucalyptus necklace had antiviral properties, saying it was a herbal product and a “health accessory” for aromatherapy.

“We used the antivirus label to lift the spirits of our researchers,” said Agriculture Ministry Research and Development Department head Fadjry Djufry.

5. Moonshot vaccine deployment

In 1961 when JFK made the announcement that America would put men on the moon by the end of the decade, it was considered a wee bit ambitious.

COVID vaccines are being fast-tracked with similar gusto, except the timelines are being measured in days, not years.

In a move that is being labelled as absurd by scientists, the Indian Government has given itself a deadline of 15 August 2020 to deploy its first homegrown COVID vaccine as a public health intervention.

A letter from the Indian Council of Medical Research director-general Balram Bhargava, leaked on Twitter in early July, revealed the unrealistic schedule.

“It is envisaged to launch the vaccine for public health use latest by 15 August 2020 after completion of all clinical trials,” he wrote.

Indian scientists said rushing the development of vaccines posed a risk to public safety.

6. Chemical warfare in the streets

An army of trucks carrying cannons and firing disinfectant into the streets of Wuhan in China might be one of the strangest sights of the 2020 pandemic.

But it’s a strategy that’s been picked up around the globe, with Tehran in Iran, Manila in The Philippines and Abu Dhabi in the UAE all spraying disinfectants in public places in an effort to contain COVID.

The Russian city of Chelyabinsk is using repurposed jet engines to disinfect streets.

And a Spanish town called Zahara de los Atunes even sprayed bleach across 2km of beach in April, but the campaign was halted after it came to the attention of the media and regional government.

In mid-May the WHO said disinfecting large outdoor areas such as streets or markets was ineffective against COVID because dirt inactivates the disinfectant.

“Even in the absence of dirt or rubbish, it is unlikely that chemical spraying would adequately cover surfaces allowing the required contact time to inactivate pathogens,” the WHO said.

Spraying disinfectants could cause eye, respiratory or skin irritation or damage, the WHO said.

And besides, streets and sidewalks are not considered as routes of infection for COVID anyway, the WHO said.

7. Bottoms up!

When we look back, one of COVID’s greatest hits will surely be the moment where President Donald Trump suggested in a briefing at the White House that researchers examine the use of ultraviolet light and disinfectant to clear COVID from the lungs.

As usual, it was a little difficult to translate what Trump was saying into English, but the widespread interpretation of his words upset a lot of experts.

“This notion of injecting or ingesting any type of cleansing product into the body is irresponsible and it’s dangerous,” said pulmonologist Dr Vin Gupta.

“It’s a common method that people utilise when they want to kill themselves.”

“As a physician, I can’t recommend injecting disinfectant into the lungs or using UV radiation inside the body to treat COVID-19,” tweeted Dr Kashif Mahmood from West Virginia. “Don’t take medical advice from Trump.”

Trump isn’t alone in expressing some science-and-logic-free ideas about COVID. In March, the President (and dictator) of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, told UK’s The Times that the best way to beat COVID was by drinking plenty of vodka and driving tractors around.

8. Sweden… where do we start?

The Scandinavian country has received a lot of flak in the press for its lackadaisical approach to COVID.

While neighboring countries Finland and Norway went into national lockdowns and limited public gatherings, Sweden left it up to citizens to decide what measures they wanted to take in response to the pandemic.

Only very light restrictions were applied in Sweden, including the closure of high schools and universities and the recommendation that symptomatic individuals and people aged over 70 self-isolate.

The outlier strategy has been heavily criticised as failing to reduce deaths from COVID without delivering any economic benefits.

Sweden currently ranks fifth highest in the world in terms of COVID deaths per million. (As of 20 July, the leading country was Belgium, followed by the UK, Spain and Italy.)

Sweden’s death rate from COVID is five times that of Norway, Finland and Denmark combined.

An article by US researchers published in Clinical Infectious Diseases on 1 July found that the economic impact of COVID on Sweden was similar to that of its neighbours, but its death rate was higher than countries that implemented strong measures quickly.

9. No screaming allowed

A Japanese theme park has banned screaming on its roller coasters in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID.

The Fuji-Q Highland theme park had been closed for three months before reopening in June with the new advice to stay silent on rides.

The theme park’s Fujiyama roller coaster is 2km long with a top speed of 130km/hour and a 70m drop along the way.

In response to comments that staying quiet on such a ride was impossible, the theme park released a video of two executives riding with masks and an immoveable deadpan expression.

Opening your mouth and letting out a COVID-filled cry is also banned at Japan’s football league games, which have also instructed audiences to avoid changes, claps and flag-waving.

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