COVID-19: Fear, quackery, false representations and the law

Int J Law Psychiatry. 2020 Sep-Oct:72:101611. doi: 10.1016/j.ijlp.2020.101611. Epub 2020 Jul 10.


Fear, anxiety and even paranoia can proliferate during a pandemic. Such conditions, even when subclinical, tend to be a product of personal and predispositional factors, as well as shared cultural influences, including religious, literary, film, and gaming, all of which can lead to emotional and less than rational responses. They can render people vulnerable to engage in implausible conspiracy theories about the causes of illness and governmental responses to it. They can also lead people to give credence to simplistic and unscientific misrepresentations about medications and devices which are claimed to prevent, treat or cure disease. In turn such vulnerability creates predatory opportunities for the unscrupulous. This article notes the eruption of quackery during the 1889-1892 Russian Flu and the 1918-1920 Spanish Flu and the emergence during 2020 of spurious claims during the COVID-19 pandemic. It identifies consumer protection strategies and interventions formulated during the 2020 pandemic. Using examples from the United States, Japan, Australia and the United Kingdom, it argues that during a pandemic there is a need for three responses by government to the risks posed by conspiracy theories and false representations: calm, scientifically-based messaging from public health authorities; cease and desist warnings directed toward those making extravagant or inappropriate claims; and the taking of assertive and well publicised legal action against individuals and entities that make false representations in order to protect consumers rendered vulnerable by their emotional responses to the phenomenology of the pandemic.

Keywords: Apocalyptic computer games; COVID-19; Cease and desist orders; Conspiracy theories; Consumer protection; Dread; Fear; Pandemic films; Pandemic literature; Pandemics; Prosecution; Public health responses; Quackery; Vulnerabilities - false representations.

MeSH terms

  • Australia
  • Betacoronavirus
  • COVID-19
  • Coronavirus Infections / epidemiology*
  • Fraud / prevention & control*
  • Fraud / statistics & numerical data
  • Health Behavior
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice
  • Humans
  • Japan
  • Pandemics
  • Pneumonia, Viral / epidemiology*
  • Public Health
  • Public Health Practice / statistics & numerical data*
  • Quackery / prevention & control*
  • Quackery / statistics & numerical data
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Social Media / statistics & numerical data
  • Truth Disclosure*
  • United States