What’s the Allure of Hydroxychloroquine?

PARIS, FRANCE - MARCH 27: A pharmacy employee wearing a protective mask shows a box of Plaquenil (Chloroquine) on March 27, 2020 in Paris, France. French Minister of Health, Olivier Veran, in a decree published in th... PARIS, FRANCE - MARCH 27: A pharmacy employee wearing a protective mask shows a box of Plaquenil (Chloroquine) on March 27, 2020 in Paris, France. French Minister of Health, Olivier Veran, in a decree published in the Official Journal yesterday has authorised hospital doctors to prescribe Plaquenil (Chloroquine) to patients who need it, by way of derogation, without waiting for the results of clinical trials that are underway to determine whether or not chloroquine is of benefit as a treatment of coronavirus. Chloroquine or Hydroxychloroquine, marketed under the name of Plaquenil is now one of the four treatments evaluated in the European clinical trial against coronavirus (Covid 19). This drug prescribed for autoimmune diseases had raised much hope after the first trial by the professor of microbiology and infectiologist Didier Raoult involving 24 patients from the Timone hospital in Marseille. The country has introduced fines for people caught violating its nationwide lockdown measures intended to stop the spread of COVID-19. The pandemic has spread to at least 182 countries, claiming over 10,000 lives and infecting hundreds of thousands more. (Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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There’s a growing body of clinical evidence that hydroxychloroquine (alone or with an accompanying antibiotic) not only has no therapeutic effect for COVID but can increase substantially the risk of death for those with advanced disease. President Trump has been pushing it for months, for reasons which are not altogether clear. What is weird and fascinating in its own right, however, is that what we might call hydroxy-mania seems to be a common feature of right-wing nationalism across the globe. The biggest example beside President Trump is his ally President Bolsonaro of Brazil, who similarly is presiding over an out-of-control epidemic with an extreme scarcity of testing.

But what could possibly be the connection between rightist-populist nationalism and this until-recently relatively obscure anti-malarial drug? Does the drug itself have some ideological valence? That can’t be the case.

Part of it must be as simple as the fact that President Trump is into it and – painful as it is to contemplate – the US President is currently the global leader of rightist-populist nationalism. So Trump’s for it and that’s good enough for Bolsonaro to be for it.

But that can’t be the entire explanation. There must be something about this drug or rather the hope of a quick cure it engenders that resonates with this ideology and mentality. And in any case it doesn’t address why it has such a hold on Trump in the first place.

My own hunch is that it is precisely the lure of a quick fix. This is an abiding feature of rightist nationalism, quick fixes to often intractable problems, usually focused on seeking revenge against a designated group of internal or external outsiders. But the desire for quick fixes runs deep. So too does the war against expertise and knowledge elites. ‘We’re in the midst of a global epidemic. Even the rosy scenarios are grim and terrifying. Our society is upended. But really, if the powers that be would just listen, it could all be solved and easily. There’s a solution.’

TPM Reader PT digs into some of these possibilities and suggests that elite disdain for these nostrums is actually part of the appeal …

Reflecting on your question, how is it that Brazil’s Bolsonaro became a fanboy for hydroxychloroquine? Why that particular hoax rather than some other? I obviously don’t know but I have a speculation:

1. When people are dying in job lots, the leaders have to tell them something, be seen to be doing something, etc. Going into hiding just won’t cut it.

2. At the same time, it’s in the nature of these kinds of goobers to need to divide the citizenry into “our side” and “their side” on everything. It simply will not do to say, “Well, actually, what the liberals and Democrats say to do is the right thing to do” (or whatever the equivalent groups are in Brazil). Their whole schtick is based on pulling their followers closer to them and creating suspicion and anger towards people outside of that group. It’s simply beyond them to carve out an exception for this issue.

3. Putting the above together, the obvious thing to do is to tout a miracle cure that the cult’s adversaries are refusing to share with the cult, presumably out of hostility towards the cult, but which the cult’s leader will share with them. Note that as a side-effect of this, the cult’s membership is fairly quickly selected (in the evolutionary sense) for “easily-grifted morons,” as Brad DeLong put it.

4. Nonetheless, if all the Bolsonaros and Trumps and etc. go around espousing DIFFERENT miracle cures, that will arouse suspicion. Much better if they all push the same miracle cure. Here hydroxychloroquine has an advantage in the marketplace of grifts because it was so early and its signal was so strongly boosted by Trump and Fox News.

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