‘Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’

The White Queen in Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1871).


I write as confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus in Victoria have risen sharply, dashing the hopes of the more optimistic that the epidemic had peaked in Australia.  Once, not that long ago, conservatively oriented commentators criticised the Andrews state government for its ‘unnecessarily’ tough regime of social restrictions, but the line of attack has switched.  According to Andrew Bolt in the Herald Sun Victorians have a ‘nitwit government’, headed by ‘Dictator Dan’ and if we had not been bullied before, we would not have overreacted when some freedoms were restored.  Oh, and the Black Lives Matter protests should not have been permitted.[1]  If anybody ever seriously thought that partisan politics had been stored in a cupboard for the duration, think again.  Yet when we consider Australian responses to the medical challenges provoked by the epidemic, there is room for some optimism.

Overwhelmingly, Australians have avoided promoting unscientific pseudo cures or subscribing to anti-vaxxer beliefs and organisations in the context of COVID-19.  Unlike populist politicians such as Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro our leaders have not pushed the virtues of bleach or hydroxychloroquine or acquiescence to fate.  Our non-presidential system assists here though that has not prevented the United Kingdom from following its own erratic path through the crisis.  There has been anti-vaxxer participation in some polyglot protests in several Australian centres, but these have been small scale, and, as far as can be measured, are confined to small groups.  Let us look at the pseudo-cures first, then the anti-vaxxer issue, and see if we can tease out some broader implications for the social status of science in Australia and the current image of alternative therapies.

Former My Kitchen Rules judge Pete Evans (right), with judge Manu Fieldel. Photo credit: PR handout image, Seven Network. Accessed via AAP Photos.

As early as 24 March this year the ABC news website ran a lengthy article examining ‘coronavirus “cures” and prevention techniques’ which were (apparently) ‘popping up all over the world’.  But not in Australia, it seemed.  The bizarre range of suggestions all originated overseas and were thoroughly debunked by two Australian experts.[2]  In an unpleasant development at this time the internet was full of memes and clips which purported to show how these funny foreigners might cover themselves in excrement (India) or hit the grog (Iran) in a bid to ward off the virus.  Later, unqualified local celebrities did offer unsolicited advice.  Supermodel Miranda Kerr, in a sashay away from the catwalk, and television chef, ‘Paleo’ Pete Evans, both provided non-solutions to the infection.  Both were also told by medical authorities to pull their heads in.[3]  Evans did not heed this warning and by early April was peddling the virtues of a ‘subtle energy platform’, retailing at a cool $15,000 which could counter the ‘Wuhan coronavirus’.[4]  A month later he was fined heavily by the Therapeutic Goods Administration and was booted by Channel 7 from his extremely lucrative position on My Kitchen Rules.[5]  The two events may only be distantly connected – My Kitchen Rules’ ratings had seriously nosedived but in some people’s eyes the government had sounded a warning.  As online magazine, Pedestrian, put it: ‘snake oil peddling weirdo Pete Evans has finally been given his marching orders.’  Since then various health authorities have warned against miracle cures and the conspiracy theories advanced by anti-vaxxers.

Anti-vaxxers have in a sense been under fire since it was clear that Australia had an epidemic.  Letters to the media have been pushing humorous, or not so humorous, sallies about them.  For example, in March, Carol Reed of Newport wrote that, when we finally had an effective vaccine for COVID-19, could one ‘assume all the anti-vaxxers will be refusing it?’  And in early June the same writer was back to suggest that the same people should ‘take a long walk through old cemeteries’ and then ‘see the many babies who died from the diseases that we now . . . can inoculate our children against.’[6]

In May several anti-lockdown protests occurred in Australia.  These, like the later Black Lives Matter rallies, followed much larger (and more agitated) occurrences in the United States.  As noted above, the lockdown protest brought together several groups with several conspiracy theories: Bill Gates, 5G, fluoride, phone towers, pharmaceutical companies, the hidden state, the visible state in the form of Australian governments.  One or all of these ‘villains’ were propagating the COVID-19 ‘scam’.[7]  It was the anti-vaxxers in the crowd who probably achieved the most media attention.  One might ask – why were they there?  The world has not yet developed a COVID-19 vaccine; it might never do so.  Ask those who have been busy researching the possibility of an anti-malarial vaccine since DDT was abandoned.  But for the dedicated opponent of vaccines that would be to underestimate the rat cunning and power of those behind the COVID-19 fakery.  Evildoers like Bill Gates need a global panic to weaken people’s resistance to having yet another needle forced upon them – amongst other things.  And, as Wendy Squires stated in the Age, those in the white coats, scientists and doctors alike, are part of the plot.  She notes sadly that passing on these lies results in ‘the dumbing of a society that prefers fallacies to facts.’[8]

It is easy to laugh at such rubbish and goodness knows there has been little to laugh at lately.  I prefer to see the positive aspects of the situation.  Such messages have not resonated with more than a handful of Australians though the pseudo-cures and anti-vaccine gibberish had sufficient hits on the net in Australia.  But overall, trust in evidence-based science and medicine has been enhanced in this country since February, although the right did its best to demonise Dr Annaliese van Diemen for her cack-handed comment about Captain Cook.  I suggest there are signs that the authority invested in hitherto unknown public health figures is testament to a growing resistance to alternative therapies and spurious health practices which precedes this epidemic.  My research indicates that the amazing growth in complementary medicine, plus its intrusion into university curricula, was at its height in Australia and internationally in the period 1990-2010.[9]  The reasons for this greater social acceptance of alternative practices were many.  They included reaction to the hegemony of orthodox medicine, the influence of non-Western therapies, the legacy of the counter-culture of the 1960s and post-modernist questioning of the supposed omniscience of science.  In Australia, the dramatic increase in the number of Australian universities in the 1980s and 1990s saw many institutions introduce courses in alternative health systems, generally, in an attempt to highlight their portfolio in a crowded field.  By 2012 sixteen Australian universities and TAFEs were running courses in complementary medicine, all the way up to PhD level.[10]

Since that time, I think there has been more circumspection about encouraging beliefs which not only have no evidential basis but can be outright dangerous.  Again, there are several reasons for the reaction against complementary practices. Australian governments of all levels have recently encouraged – or enforced – vaccination programs, fearful of the consequences of low immunisation rates such as the measles outbreak in Samoa in 2019.  Anti-vaccination supporters now receive less attention in the traditional media and, if they do, it tends to be unfavourable.  For several years, universities have been criticised from within and without academia for sponsoring courses which are not based on ‘evidence, facts and truth.’[11]  (Also, it became more lucrative for universities to chase international students than establish dubious programs.)  In 2011, Friends of Science in Medicine was founded in Australia and it is a vigorous opponent of alternative practices with no evidential validity and universities which encourage the same.  Science gets a lot of things wrong, but it has two huge advantages over its alternative rivals: it knows it makes mistakes and it can amend its ways.  Progress really and that is needed as we encounter the pandemic.

[1] Herald Sun, 30 June 2020, https://www.heraldsun.com.au/

[2] ABC News, 24 March 2020, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-03-23/coronavirus-myths-from-around-the-world-busted-by-experts/12054310  Also see Chris Cooper, ‘Pull the other one’, Age, 24 March 2020, https://www.theage.com.au/national/pull-the-other-one-drinking-hot-water-and-other-dangerous-myths-about-the-virus-20200324-p54dbj.html ; Age, 25 March 2020, p.23.

[3] Echo, , https://www.echo.net.au/2020/03/beware-of-fake-medical-advice-about-coronavirus/, accessed 24 March 2020.

[4] Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/10/chef-pete-evans-criticised-for-trying-to sell-15000-light-device-to-fight-coronavirus, accessed 10 April 2020.  See also, ‘Authorities to probe Pete Evans over COVID-19 plasma lamp’ Herald-Sun, https://www.heraldsun.com.au, accessed 10 April 2020.

[5] For the fine see ‘Covid-19 coronavirus: Pete Evans slapped with $25,000 fine for ‘biocharger’ machine COVID-19 claims’, New Zealand Herald, https://www.nzherald.co.nz/, accessed 25 April 2020.  For the sacking see “Pete’s off the menu as MKR loses heat’, Age, 9 May 2020 and ‘Pete Evans, A Class- A Spanner Has Finally Been Sacked From His $800k A Year ‘MKR” Job’, Pedestrian,https://www.pedestrian.tv/news/pete-evans-sacked-mkr/, accessed 8 May 2020.

[6] The two letters appeared in the Age, 24 March 2020 and 2 June 2020.

[7] Age, 12 May 2020; ‘Vaccines, 5G, Bill Gates’, Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/media/2020/may/12/vaccines-5g-bill-gates-why-are-Australians-gathering-to-spread-coronavirus-conspiracy-theories, accessed 12 May 2020; Guardian, https://theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/may/30/australian-anti-vaxxers-label-civid-19-a-scam-and-break-distancing-rules-at-anti-5g-protests, accessed 1 June 2020.

[8] ‘Here’s the con in conspiracy’, Age, 16 June 2020.

[9] If anybody wants my sources for this claim, please contact me through this journal and I shall happily supply references.  For an example of another country – the UK – see Roy Porter, Blood & Guts: A Short History of Medicine, Penguin, London, p. 51 and Francis Wheen, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World: A Short History of Modern Delusions, Harper Perennial, London, 2004, p. 132.  This paragraph and the next also draw on a previous article I wrote for this journal: ‘Multiple Choice: Complementary Medicine in Contemporary Australia’, published 20 June 2018.

[10] Justin Norrie,’Pseudosciences are destroying the reputation of Australia’s universities, The Conversation, 5 March 2012, theconversation.com/pseudo-sciences-are-destroying-the-reputation-of-Australian-universities-5685

[11] Barney Glover, Chairperson of Universities Australia, https://www.theguardiancom/Australia-news/2017/mar/01/universities-australia-chairman-warns-of-public-hostility-to-evidence-and-expertise, accessed 6 March 2017.

Dr. Richard Trembath
Dr. Richard Trembath

Richard has taught history at Victorian universities for many years.  He is the author of several books, mostly in conjunction with colleagues.  These include All Care and Responsibility: A History of Nursing in Victoria with Donna Hellier; A Different Sort of War: Australians in Korea 1950-53; Divine Discontent – The Brotherhood of St Laurence: A History (with Colin Holden);Witnesses to War: The History of Australian Conflict Reporting (with Fay Anderson).  His most recent book is Defending Country: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Military Service Since 1945(with Noah Riseman) which was published in April 2016. Richard’s current research interests are the history of military veterans’ organisations and the social history of contemporary medicine.