India’s Covid-19 response has been hindered not only by poor healthcare facilities, gross vaccine mismanagement and a lack of medical resources and staff, but also by the ruling regime’s advocacy of controversial pseudoscience grounded in Hindu nationalism.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pandemic strategy has been fraught with cultural assertions that seek to promote the mythical knowledge of ancient Indians as an alternative to conventional medicine and practices. His public health messaging, ostensibly designed to persuade people to change their behaviour to respond appropriately to the pandemic, has been confusing and lacking a coherent national plan rooted in evidence-based science.
Senior government ministers and several politicians linked to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have consistently peddled unscientific claims about preventing and treating the virus. In mid-May, a BJP member of parliament, Pragya Thakur, claimed that consuming a cow urine extract could cure Covid-19. “If we have desi gau mutra (urine from an indigenous cow) every day, then it cures lung infection from Covid,” Thakur told a party gathering.
She also blamed the “panic-like situation of oxygen” in hospitals on the cutting down of trees such as the native peepal (sacred fig) and herbs like tulsi (holy basil) and said families should plant them to be given “life in return”.
This was not the first time that legislators from Modi’s party had suggested such solutions to Covid-19 infections. Surendra Singh, a BJP legislator from India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, had claimed earlier that drinking cow urine protected him against the virus. He also recommended “cow urine with a glass of cold water”.
In a video that went viral in May, a BJP legislator from Uttar Pradesh was seen blowing a shankh (conch shell) and performing a havan (fire ritual) by burning cow dung, bits from a mango tree and camphor, which he said would increase the oxygen level in the atmosphere and kill the virus. Another video from Gujarat state showed a group of men smearing their bodies with cow dung and urine in the hope that it would boost their immunity.
The Indian Medical Association (IMA) has reiterated that there is no scientific evidence that cow dung or urine helps with the prevention or treatment of Covid-19. “Cow dung is nothing but body waste. Applying cow dung and urine can never boost immunity or protect you from getting coronavirus. Instead of proving helpful, cow dung would give you other infections, including mucormycosis,” said Mona Desai, chairperson of the IMA’s women’s wing, referring to a rare but serious fungal infection.
Letting disinformation spread
The Hindu-nationalist BJP government has shown little interest in combating its politicians’ disinformation and discouraging the public from ingesting unsafe remedies. Instead, it has pushed unscientific methods and propagated pseudoscience as part of its anti-science campaign, which aims to restore India’s mythological status – in the imagination of Hindutva adherents like Modi – as a centuries-old knowledge centre that is much superior to Western-based medical practices.
The Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga, Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, Sowa-Rigpa and Homoeopathy (Ayush), which deals with alternative systems of medicine, announced a nationwide campaign on 7 May to promote Ayush-64, a polyherbal drug for Covid-19 patients who are asymptomatic or have only mild to moderate symptoms.
The ministry claimed that Indian researchers had conducted a randomised, controlled clinical trial with 70 participants and the results demonstrated “significant improvement” and a shorter “period of hospitalisation”. It did not provide any peer-reviewed evidence for this claim, however.
Developed by the Central Council for Research in Ayurvedic Sciences, Ayush-64 was initially developed for malaria and then repurposed for Covid-19 patients. But several Indian scientists from the Ayurveda stream have flagged the clinical trials related to using Ayush-64 for Covid-19 treatment, highlighting the limitations in the trial design, analysis of the results and biases associated with the study.
“(The) scientific community now conducting research on Ayush-64 (as a drug against Covid-19) should exercise extra caution in light of the previous uneasy experiences with this drug. It may be recalled that Ayush-64 had failed the phase 2 clinical trial against malaria, and could never form part of the malaria strategy of India,” the scientists said.
“Additionally, it is vital to remember that the kind of unsubstantiated claims made during its initial launch were also criticised by the scientific fraternity. Employing Ayurveda for the treatment of Covid-19 is urgently necessary, but it is equally important to generate evidence and provide evidence-based insights to strengthen the scope of Ayurveda.”
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has come under severe criticism for promoting pseudoscientific medicine and yoga to prevent or treat Covid-19. It issued an advisory in March last year on boosting immunity through the consumption of Chyavanprash (a jam with gooseberry pulp as its base) in the morning, as well as herbal tea or a concoction made from tulsi, cinnamon, black pepper, dry ginger and raisins. It also advised people to drink “golden milk” – turmeric powder mixed with hot milk – once or twice a day.
Following this, the Ayush ministry released a treatment protocol for Covid-19 patients that promotes the use of different tablets made from herbal roots, fruits and seeds, as well as Ayush-64 and yoga.
Modi had also recommended the observance of an Ayush ministry advisory that suggests these “home remedies” for Covid-19 prevention.
Deceiving gullible patients
The IMA has attacked Minister of Health Harsh Vardhan for promoting alternative medicines for Covid-19 patients, noting that he was “inflicting a fraud on the nation and gullible patients”. It added that the health minister had admitted that “these are not based on empirical evidence, which means that the evidence is anecdotal and based on individual subjective experiences”.
Vardhan, a medical doctor, was present in February at an event to promote Coronil, a herbal concoction that was formulated by Patanjali, a company founded by self-styled “godman” Baba Ramdev. Patanjali initially claimed that Coronil had been certified by India’s medicines regulator and the World Health Organization (WHO) as a remedy for Covid-19. The WHO immediately clarified that it had neither reviewed nor certified any traditional medicine for such a purpose.
The IMA described the claims about Coronil as a “false and fabricated projection” of an “unscientific medicine” and asked Vardhan whether the release of the product was justified. It has now again threatened to go to court if the health ministry does not take cognisance of Ramdev’s “false and baseless” claims and wants him prosecuted under the special powers conferred by the Epidemic Diseases Act, citing a recent video in which he has cast aspersions on allopathic medicines.
Public health experts and scientists have raised their objections and frustration with the government’s anti-scientific attitude, which has aggravated the impact of the pandemic. India’s leading virologist, Shahid Jameel, in an opinion piece for The New York Times, noted that the country’s scientists were facing “stubborn resistance” to evidence-based policy making. “Decision-making based on data is yet another casualty as the pandemic in India has spun out of control,” he said.
Several of India’s top scientists issued a public letter to Modi on 29 April in which they said the country’s “inability to adequately manage the spread of infections has, to a large extent, resulted from epidemiological data not being systematically collected and released in a timely manner to the scientific community”.
They also said that despite the Indian Council of Medical Research having gathered data from Covid-19 diagnostic tests since the beginning of the pandemic, this data had not been made available to anyone outside the government.