The witches’ brew, with incantations from the nether world, lulled a false sense of invincibility in Macbeth, the eponymous play by Shakespeare. Bubonic plague periodically struck London in the 16th and into the 17th century, reaching a climax with the Great Plague of London (1664–65).
The uncertainties which shrouded medical opinion cleared the way for the proliferation of quacks. In fact, with every pandemic, be it cholera or plague, and now as is seen, Covid-19, the patent-medicine industry is seen to be eager to provide a cure and to make a quick buck. But with people in government who set greater store by voodoo and quackery than by science, at whose watch some 3- lakh people have died of the virus so far, the official sanction has darker significance.
Shahid Jameel, an eminent virologist who had said complacency had contributed to the ferocity of India’s second Covid19 wave resigned as the head of the scientific advisory body from the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortia (INSACOG).
In a guest article in The New York Times on India’s Covid-19 epidemic, he wrote only a few days ago how his fellow scientists were “facing stubborn resistance to evidence-based policymaking”. Way back in March this year, a forum of scientific advisers set up by the government warned Indian officials of “a new and more contagious variant of the coronavirus taking hold in the country”, says a Reuters report, but the “authorities were not paying enough attention to the evidence as they set policy”. “Policy has to be based on evidence and not the other way around,” Dr Jameel told Reuters.
“I am worried that science was not taken into account to drive policy. But I know where my jurisdiction stops. As scientists we provide the evidence, policymaking is the job of the government.” Disdain for scientific protocols was evident from the government of Uttarakhand’s decision to go ahead with the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar from April onwards despite the sharply worsening Covid scenario.
The enormity of the reckless exercise can be gauged by the fact that the Mela was attended by nearly 30 lakh people in India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call on April 17 urging that the weeks-long religious festival “should now only be symbolic” came a little late in the day, in the wake of nearly 2,000 devotees testing positive in around a week’s time and two royal baths having already taken place giving rise to the possibilities of thousand others getting infected. How a Kumbh Mela was allowed to take place is surprising because quite a few Kumbh Melas played a major role in the spread of cholera outbreaks and pandemics earlier.
A cholera epidemic broke out during the 1783 Kumbh Mela in Haridwar killing more than 20,000 people. In 1891, a massive cholera outbreak in India caused the Kumbh Mela to be dispersed but still at the end of the Mela, 169,013 cholera-related deaths had been reported in Haridwar.
While tens of thousands of farmers were allowed to remain camped on the outskirts of the capital New Delhi to protest against new agriculture laws, the Election Commission’s decision to allow political parties to hold massive electoral rallies and to hold elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam and Puducherry when infection rate was at its mortal peak was another epidemiological disaster waiting to happen. As further proof that we are not scientifically-minded, we have important ministers and officer bearers brazenly defending bunkum ~ the cow is the only animal that exhales oxygen and caressing and massaging it is a remedy for respiratory ailments; that Indians had built planes fit enough for inter-planetary aviation thousands of years ago; the ‘proof’ of plastic surgery in ancient India lay in Ganesha’s head on a human body; Arjuna’s arrows were examples of their being weaponized with “nuclear power” and that the Indian engineers built the Ram Setu known formerly as Adam’s Bridge, a chain of limestone shoals between India and Sri Lanka, and many such pearls, that made us a laughing stock to the scientific fraternity of the world.
In February this year, Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan alongside Cabinet colleague Nitin Gadkari were seen at a press conference on the occasion of publication of a double-blinded, randomised clinical trial in a research journal. The putative drug was Coronil, an Ayurvedic pill promoted by Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali Ayurved, which since June last year, was pitching to be deployed into India’s Covid-19 management protocol. Which could be fair, had it never made an outlandish claim of being a miracle drug with ‘100 per cent recovery guaranteed’.
This week, the Indian Medical Association (IMA) took serious exception to Ramdev’s claim that allopathy was a “stupid science” and that medicines such as Remdesivir and Favipiravir approved by the Drugs Controller General of India for coronavirus treatment had failed. “Lakhs of patients have died because of allopathic medicines rather than a shortage of oxygen,” Ramdev reportedly claimed to which an extremely livid IMA demanded his prosecution under the Epidemic Disease Act “for disobeying and causing danger to the life of many”.
Hours after the backlash, Patanjali Yogipeeth and its MD Acharya Balkrishna issued a statement claiming that the ‘truncated’ video being referenced was totally out of context, that Baba Ramdev had no ill-will against modern science and practitioners of modern medicine and maintained that what was being attributed to the former was “false and nugatory”.
But with the pandemic, the battle between science and quackery rages on. Last year, Rajasthan BJP MP Sukhbir Singh Jaunapuria, a lawmaker from Tonk-Sawai Madhopur constituency, suggested that sitting in mud and blowing conch shells boosted immunity and helped the body to fight Covid-19 infection.
That the MP later tested positive is beside the point. BJP’s West Bengal unit chief Dilip Ghosh said in November 2019 the milk produced by Indian cows contains gold. Last year, during a programme in Durgapur, Ghosh suggested cow urine and ayurvedic medicine for protection against coronavirus.
Recently a video of people smeared with cow dung and urine mixture on their bodies considering it to be a cure for Covid-19, and allowing it to dry as they hugged and honoured cows and practised yoga ~ the pack would have to be washed off with milk or buttermilk ~ apparently shot at the Shree Swaminarayan Gurukul Vishwavidya Pratishthanam Gaushala, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad ~ went viral.
In Madhya Pradesh, among the many states reeling under a massive second wave of Covid19, the spectacle of Bhopal MP Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur advising people to consumer gau mutra (cow-urine) of a desi (Indian) cow for its ‘benefit’ in fighting lung infections also did the rounds. She explained that she consumes gau mutra after offering prayers saying, “Aap hamare liye amrut ke swaroop hai, mein aapko grahan kar rahi hu. Aap mere bheetar ki raksha kare kyu ki mera jeevan rashtre ke liye hai (you are like amrit to me, I am consuming you. Please protect me because my life is for the nation).” The problem about political leaders making such absurd proclamations is that people might actually practise them with serious public health implications.
The writer is a Kolkata based commentator on politics, development and cultural issues. (To Be Concluded)