Update 09/08/21: Reporting for his Substack, my friend and colleague Zaid Jilani contacted the Sequoyah County Sheriff, who told him, “Yes, I heard that ridiculous story as well. Other than one shooting victim that died, there has been only one other gunshot victim in our county so far this year. He was treated at our hospital and released. There was no wait time at all.”
Over the weekend, a story made the rounds that sounded a bit too convenient to be true. It was from the local NBC affiliate in Oklahoma City, and was based entirely on an interview with a single ER doctor. The doctor claimed that hospitals in his region were so backed up with patients overdosing on unprescribed Ivermectin for Covid-19 that even people with gunshot wounds were having a hard time getting seen.
The story was regurgitated by The Guardian, the BBC, Rolling Stone, Rachel Maddow and Joy Reid, among many others. To the mass media algorithm, the story was like catnip laced with crack, dipped in chocolate with sprinkles on top. It had it all: braindead red state hillbillies refusing to listen to science and get the vaccine, instead chugging livestock medicine and costing other people their lives through their selfish recklessness. We could both laugh at these people for their stupidity and shake our heads in disgust at the graveness of their misdeeds. How could an MSNBC viewer resist?
You already know where this is going: the story was bullshit. Two local hospitals that contract with the doctor denied that they had treated any patients with Ivermectin overdoses. As of late August, according to The Oklahoman, the state’s poison control line had received a total of 11 calls for Ivermectin poisoning since May, most of them with mild symptoms — hardly the kinds of numbers you’d expect to crash emergency rooms all over the state. Curiously, just a few days ago, the very same ER doctor described what was presumably the same case of a gunshot victim who was unable to receive care to Tulsa World, but in that story there’s no mention of Ivermectin; the hospital was being crushed by Covid cases, not overdoses on animal dewormer. By all appearances, either the doctor was blowing smoke up the ass of the local NBC station, or the station was taking his quotes out of context, attributing to Ivermectin a surge in emergency cases that was actually the consequence of Covid.
So a story about people acting like fools after being duped by fake news was, itself, fake news. The whole episode proved once again what we’ve been shown so many times before: that the media is more interested in advancing a particular narrative than in accurately portraying events in the world. And that narrative is hate.
Last week, a pulmonologist friend and I did the impossible: we had a calm, dispassionate, evidence-based discussion about Ivermectin on my podcast. I’ve been following the Ivermectin debate for months, mostly by being a regular listener of Bret Weinstein’s podcast, Dark Horse, but also from seeking out the perspectives of other experts who do not share Weinstein’s perhaps unwarranted enthusiasm for the medication. Dr. Katie Hisert, the pulmonologist, is one of them.
Katie’s take on Ivermectin is close to mine, which is, basically, that we don’t know yet whether it works. There have been a number of smaller scale studies on Ivermectin, of varying quality, which have yielded different and contradictory results. Some of them show strong efficacy, some of them show no efficacy at all. There’s also statistical data from countries like India and Mexico that have been mass prescribing Ivermectin for Covid. Some of those numbers have also shown promise, but largely through correlation, which, as we know from seventh grade science, is not causation. What’s needed to settle the question once and for all is a large-scale, double-blind, randomized control study, and exactly that is happening right now in the UK.
That’s about as undogmatic an opinion as I have about anything; I don’t think I could be more wishy-washy if I tried. Yet over the weekend I was told that I’m “enabling both fascism and pandemics” for my views (yes, on Twitter and yes, I know). My crime was to second guess the chorus of cackling, tsk tsking and concern trolling over the legions of “vaccine-rejecting groypers” sucking down “horse paste” during NASCAR commercial breaks. In the most politicized corners of the internet, you literally are not allowed to have a nuanced position on Ivermectin. If you do, you’re part of the problem.
Ivermectin has become the new red MAGA hat. To those who embrace it, it’s a banner of freedom from liberal pieties, government coercion and elite mind control. To those who reject it, it’s a mark of the beast. There can be no middle position. You’re either with us, or you’re with Ivermectin.
There is one important difference, though, between the hat and the drug. A few years ago, when the press had a similar orgy of misinformed moral indignation over the red-hatted Covington Catholic high school kids, Donald Trump was president, the Republicans controlled the Senate and liberals feared a fascist takeover of America. Today, the people the media is shitting all over don’t even have a tangential connection to power. This time it’s just pure disdain.
Here’s a writer for Daily Kos comparing his own “anti-vax” sister to a chimpanzee. Here’s the Daily Show joking about fooling all those dumb hicks into taking the real vaccine by marketing it as horse medicine. Here’s The Week’s Ryan Cooper deploring the “gullible retired people … coughing into each other's face at the Cheesecake Factory.” This is not the language of concern for a population at risk. This isn’t even the language of alarm at people who, through their choices, are putting others at risk: you don’t hear Daily Kos sneering at black people, or poor people, or young people, all of whom, like conservatives, are disproportionately represented among the vaccine-hesitant. This isn’t about public health at all, and we all know it. It’s about the intoxicating sense of togetherness that only collective disdain for others can bring us.
If it weren’t for the public health implications, this inane discourse could just be dismissed as stupid internet shit. But in the world we live in, stupid internet shit is the tail that wags the dog of the real world. The political landscape around Ivermectin is already being shaped by it. In Florida, one county commissioner is urging Governor Ron DeSantis to make it easier for Covid patients to obtain Ivermectin, despite the fact that it’s not FDA-approved for Covid and has not been rigorously tested. On the other side, you’ve got people calling for doctors who promote Ivermectin to be stripped of their licenses. On her MSNBC show, Joy Reid went so far as to suggest that it may be time for hospitals to start de-prioritizing emergency care for Ivermectin overdose cases in order to make room for more deserving patients, which is insane. Even scientists are finding the subject too toxic to touch.
Now consider again for a moment what that topic is: whether an anti-parasitic medication that has helped billions of people around the world might have off-label antiviral properties that are effective against Covid-19. Can you imagine, even a year ago, that question being a third rail subject dividing the country into opposing camps, frothing at the mouth with hatred for one another? This isn’t 9/11, or abortion, or systemic racism, this is a pathogenetic hypothesis about protease inhibitors. You shouldn’t even be aware of this question if you’re not a doctor or a medical scientist. We might as well be poised to kill each other over quarks.
But after years of exposure to a media industry whose business model is selling us hatred, we have been reduced to so much kindling. Practically anything can set us aflame. And given the incentives of the digital attention economy, just about everyone involved — from journalists to politicians to activists to influencers — is in the arson business.