Hydroxychloroquine, a drug that has been pushed by US President Donald Trump as a cure for Covid-19, has created considerable controversy in the US. Oddly enough, the associated psycho-political phenomena surrounding the disagreement can be linked to parallel events here in Hong Kong.

Hydroxychloroquine is a drug used for preventing and treating malaria and has been in the news these days due to Trump talking it up as a possible therapeutic treatment for the coronavirus. Trump has based his views around a small clinical trial where the drug showed promising effects.

Donald Trump. File photo: US Gov’t.

However, because the drug’s effectiveness against the virus has not been proven in a highly rigorous (randomized, double-blind and placebo driven) fashion, many medical scientists have claimed that its use on Covid-19 patients is contentious at best and dangerous at worst. In fact, a very recent study has suggested the latter.

However, this scientific viewpoint, which would normally prevail, has not prevented beliefs about the drug’s use polarizing views about it in the United States. 

Despite having little pharmacological knowledge, Trump has frequently championed the drug’s use. In the meantime, scientists have equally strongly urged caution. With each announcement in favour or against its use, hydroxychloroquine has become a symbol of the current culture war whereby beliefs about the drug’s efficacy reflect one’s political beliefs.

Covid-19 under an electron microscope. File photo: NIAID-RML.

On the right side of the political spectrum, there tends to be a belief in the drug’s effectiveness against the virus in line with Trump’s view, while the left takes the scientific viewpoint, i.e., that it is far too early to make any decision about the drug.

As the heat over the subject rises, the sides have become polarized to the point where belief on one side or the other defines one’s political position. Now that the belief or disbelief in hydroxychloroquine has become politicised, the medical facts of the matter can be twisted to support opinions on either side.

In fact, the original study that influenced Trump is reasonably compelling, although the publisher of the journal that released the article has since questioned it.

Regardless, proponents on the right use evidence from the article, flawed or not, to support their beliefs. However, the deeper problem arrives when a public issue that relies on facts morphs into one that is based on opinion.

Perhaps the best example of this involves climate change. Even though climate change caused by humans is accepted as a fact by an overwhelming number of scientists, it has become politicized, with those on the left being more likely to accept the scientific viewpoint than those on the right.

Air pollution in Beijing. Photo: Kentaro Iemoto via Flickr.

Despite the yearly heat records being set, disbelievers in climate change, influenced by their fellow believers, can always find scientists to cast doubt on global warming and hold them up as evidence to support their “truths”.

Here in Hong Kong we are witnessing a similar phenomenon. Regarding the ongoing protests, the yellow and blue sides naturally view events radically differently and even when incidents appear to be clear cut, the facts take on a political hue.

The now infamous episode at Prince Edward MTR Station on August 31 where many yellow supporters still insist a number of people died is a good example of an event that has morphed into a question of opinion.

Under normal circumstances, when a number of people die during a protest, the main concern in the subsequent investigation is how they died and who was involved. However, the controversy, if it can be called such, around Prince Edward Station, is whether anyone died at all.

Photo: KH/United Social Press.

Given that no one has come forward to ask questions about missing friends or family members, it is inconceivable that any deaths occurred. Yet in these contentious times, on the yellow side, that the deaths really did occur has become an integral part of the belief system of at least some of their members.

They use a supposed mix-up in the number of injured participants plus the refusal to release a video of the event as their evidence that deaths must have occurred. Any denial that deaths occurred becomes a threat to their belief system. The regular laying of flowers at the station to commemorate the “deceased” further strengthens their belief.

To some extent, without sounding condescending, we can be forgiving of those who believe the deaths occurred. In highly charged situations such as we have here in Hong Kong, it is human nature to double down and side with one’s group members. 

Tribe trumps truth more often than otherwise.

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Paul Stapleton is a long-time resident of several countries in Asia, where he has been teaching and researching at various universities. He writes about environmental, social and educational issues. In his op-eds, Paul's goal is to shed some light on issues of interest as well as generate a bit of heat. Paul’s website is at Academic Proofreading Plus.