Misrepresenting traditional knowledge during COVID-19 is dangerous

Indigenous scholars say claims of herbal cures amounts to malpractice.

 

An herbal tea mixture containing licorice root and ginger, common antiviral herbs. While herbs may help address some symptoms of COVID-19 and are good for overall health, they do not prevent, treat or cure coronavirus.

As COVID-19 makes its way into Indigenous communities, so too does the spread of misinformation about cures. On social media, we have seen posts by Native American herbalists telling us to drink herbal teas, along with tweets promoting the healing properties of essential oils purported to be “used by Native Americans.” But when traditional knowledge is shared inaccurately as herbal “remedies” that can prevent, treat or cure COVID-19, it presents a new threat.

Herbal teas or essential oils will not cure COVID-19 and may even be harmful. As a traditionally trained ethnobotanist and professor of environmental studies, and a public health graduate student and writer, we see the sharing of misinformation about herbal remedies and ethnobotanical knowledge on social media as potentially negligent.

As the descendants of survivors of epidemics, we are also concerned about the effects of the incorrect information regarding cures currently being shared within our Indigenous communities.

Scholars tell us that up to 90% of Native American or Indigenous peoples died in the Americas when epidemics of new diseases brought by settlers ravaged their populations. The few who did survive often suffered from long-term medical issues, including infertility and other reproductive issues, as they struggled to rebuild their families and communities.

Today, the danger of not knowing how a disease is spread or how to stop it is well understood by researchers and experts. Before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, claims of herbal “cures” began circulating on social media. WHO launched a page called Myth Busters in an effort to combat false or misleading claims regarding the prevention, treatment or cure of the virus, including the use of herbal remedies. WHO’s Myth Busters even created a cartoon meme of a smiling head of garlic (Allium sativum) — a traditional herb used by people around the globe — which warned people that it cannot protect them from COVID-19.  

World Health Organization

Traditional knowledge, including ethnobotanical knowledge, has long been and continues to be one of the strengths of Indigenous communities. Even the United Nations recognizes the importance of Indigenous knowledge for sustaining healthy ecosystems and the biodiversity of our environments.

Herbal medicine and ethnobotanical knowledge have been used for thousands of years in cultures around the world, becoming the basis for many of our current Western medicines. The most well-known is aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid), which was developed from salicylic acid, which came from the salicin found in the bark of willow (Salix spp.). Many ethnobotanists still utilize willow bark as an analgesic or pain reliever. 

Traditional knowledge like this is usually acquired after years of formal training and practicing proper protocols. Our grandmother, Annie Mad Plume Wall, received ethnobotanical knowledge from her grandmothers, who were taught by their grandmothers as well. She provided herbal medicines to our family and to other members of the Blackfeet community throughout her lifetime. This kind of knowledge and its application are not taken lightly by those who are trained. Our grandmother once admonished a family member for putting berries that she used for medicine in a milkshake. “They’re medicine!” she proclaimed.

While herbal medicines may help address some symptoms of COVID-19 and are good for our overall health, at this time they cannot prevent, treat or cure coronavirus. 

That respect for herbs and what they can and cannot do for us — as well as an awareness of the time and attention it takes to understand when, how and why to process them into useful medicine — is important to remember right now.  While herbal medicines may help address some symptoms of COVID-19 and are good for our overall health, at this time they cannot prevent, treat or cure coronavirus. And believing they could do so could have dire consequences for our communities.  

As COVID-19 continues to spread across the country, Indigenous people will need to modify their traditions, as they adhere to Western medical protocols.Some of our old practices like ceremony, or how we gather for funerals to show respect for individuals, need to change, Dr. Evan Adams, Chief Medical Officer of British Columbia’s First Nations Health Authority, recently stated.

As scientists work to create a vaccine, we need to protect our most vulnerable community members — our elders, the immunocompromised and those experiencing homelessness — by mitigating the impact of COVID-19. Unfortunately, many of our Indigenous communities do not have strong public health systems, and we need to follow the evidence-based protocols and prevention measures set out by WHO and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). They represent our greatest opportunity to slow the spread of the disease. 

Before we share that new post telling us that drinking herbal tea cures COVID-19, consider that sharing misinformation about Indigenous knowledge on social media, especially anything that claims it can prevent, treat or cure COVID-19, is dangerous. It amounts to traditional knowledge malpractice.  

Rosalyn LaPier (Blackfeet/Métis), Ph.D., is an award-winning Indigenous writer, ethnobotanist and environmental activist. She is an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Montana and a research associate at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

Abaki Beck (Blackfeet/Métis), M.P.H. candidate, is a freelance writer and public-health graduate student. She writes about Indigenous science and knowledge and gender-based issues in Native communities. She previously worked for a member of Congress and conducted community-based research on traditional plants and food systems on the Blackfeet Reservation.

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