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Science v quackery~I I

Social media, particularly, WhatsApp , is abuzz with ‘magic‘ remedies. Remedies vary from the queer to the eccentric, to the plain nauseating ~that regular saline nasal wash will prevent virus from entering the lungs and eliminate them from the nasopharynx, that Vitamin D supplements will improve immunity and prevent Covid-19 infection and that drinking whiskey frequently will kill the virus.

Prasenjit Chowdhury | New Delhi |

There are many remedies and placebos being forwarded across the social media as a ‘cure’ for Covid-19 advising people to follow them, hook, line, and sinker, and for lack of opportunities to sift the grain from the chaff, with no public health guidelines available to them, people are known to fall for them. Manipur Police booked a journalist and another activist under the National Security Act (NSA) recently, over their “offensive” social media posts on death of Manipur state BJP chief S Tikendra Singh which, one might guess, was for appending a comment that cow urine and dung do not cure Covid-19 and for the implication hidden in it.

Last year, the Ministry of AYUSH advocated the use of alternative medicines such as homoeopathy and Ayurveda to ward off coronavirus, and also recommended sipping water boiled with tulsi, ginger and turmeric to fight the infection. While their medical qualities might be immense, to recommend them as prevention of Covid-19 infection was misleading. Tamilisai Soundararajan, formerly the National Secretary and Tamil Nadu State Unit President of the BJP, and currently appointed as the Governor of Telangana, last year tweeted prescriptively: “Look at new drugs to target SARS CoV-2 and COVID19.

Compound identified is Camphor! In traditional medicines Ayurveda, it has been used as a remedy. Camphor was used to fight plague and influenza epidemics. Pray with camphor or make Chakkarai Pongal (sweet pongal) with Pacchai Karpooram.” The suggestion was naturally lapped up because it came from a person of constitutional authority and who was a doctor by training. At the time of writing this, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy ordered scientific tests on an ayurveda medicine that is being distributed by an ayurveda practitioner in the port town of Krishnapatnam in Nellore district as a “cure” for Covid-19.

The ruling YSRCP MLA, K Govardhan Reddy, actively promoting the ayurveda medicine in the town, claims it to be a “miracle cure” for Covid-19. Alarmed over the huge number of people queuing up for the medicine, Vice-President M Venkaiah Naidu, who hails from Nellore district, asked Union Minister for Ayush Kiren Rijiju and ICMR Director Balram Bhargava to conduct a study on the medicine, and submit a report.

Social media, particularly, WhatsApp, is abuzz with such ‘magic’ remedies. Posts claiming that “inhaling a combination of camphor, cloves (laung), carrom seeds (ajwain) and a few drops of eucalyptus oil can help in increasing oxygen levels in the body” are doing the rounds in gay abandon.

Remedies vary from the queer to the eccentric, to the plain nauseating ~ that “regular saline nasal wash will prevent virus from entering the lungs and eliminate them from the nasopharynx”, that “Vitamin D supplements will improve immunity and prevent Covid-19 infection”, that “lemon juice through the nose will kill the virus”, that  “drinking ayurvedic or homemade kadhas 3-4 times a day will prevent/improve immunity and prevent infection”, that “common antibiotics will cure Covid-19”  and last but not the least, “drinking whiskey or other forms of alcohol frequently will kill the virus in the throat” ~ giving rise to a false sense of complacency, prompting people to lower their guards, buying over-the counter antibiotics, often with unforeseen consequences such as excessive intake of Vitamin D supplements causing toxicity.

The Government of India has constituted the “Rashtriya Kamdhenu Aayog”, under the Ministry of Animal Husbandry and Fisheries, in 2019 to organize animal husbandry on “modern and scientific lines” and to take steps for preserving and improving breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle. One of the ‘scientific’ claims it has made is that diseases like psoriasis, skin disorders, eczema, arthritis, inflammation and leprosy, among others, can be treated by consuming ‘Panchgavya’ products ~ cow milk and its derivatives as well as cow urine and dung.

“Divya Godhan Ark is an ancient Ayurvedic medicine made by extracting the goodness from gomutra or cow urine”, claims the Patanjali online website, which produced some 5,000 litres of cow urine every day as per claims made by its CEO five years ago. Whether production of such products has been ramped up in view of their promotion as antidote to lung infection is not known, but the implications of advocating such therapies in the name of science at a time when the entire nation is reeling under a deadly second wave of the pandemic are bound to be counterproductive to a country which is still riddled with superstition.

Surely, the scientific community has to deal with such quackeries with greater stridency. One can argue that modern quackery does not put animals at risk. Harvesting cow dung and cow urine can never harm them, particularly if we compare some of the unusual medieval remedies listed by writer-historian Toni Mount who has to say that during medieval times to cure a severe throat infection was to take a fat cat and flay it well, followed by requiring to clean and draw out the guts.

After procuring the grease of a hedgehog and the fat of a bear and resins and fenugreek and sage and gum of honeysuckle and virgin wax ~ to be crumbled small and to be stuffed within the cat ~ the poor animal had to be roasted well, and the grease thus gathered had to be applied to the patient. Just in case, the attendant cruelties shock us further, we can take recourse to The Natural History by Pliny the Elder who, in his turn, draws upon the memoirs of Democritus, to prescribe that for some diseases, the skull of a malefactor is most efficacious, while for the treatment of others, that of one who has been a friend or guest is required.

With the pandemic in the air, such prescriptions today can be a call to a civil war. The World Health Organization estimates that India had 1.2 million snakebite deaths (average 58,000/year) from 2000 to 2019. Many of the deaths could have been preventable, had not superstition got the better of the victims’ families, and had there been adequate healthcare facilities. The problem for so-called advocates of science in India is often that the tenets of ‘scientific’ methods they forward are themselves subject to various forms of weird belief now and then.

But we must remain alert to keep away from voodoos and quackery as means to combat the pandemic so as not to further compromise the hard-earned signposts of Indian science. Precious lives must be saved.


(The writer is a Kolkata based commentator on politics, development and cultural issues)