Pseudoscience thrives during the Covid pandemic

Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, stirred up a series of trolls and memes on social media recently by claiming that “Corona does not spread in salt water”, during a press conference related to the Gangasagar Mela.

The Gangasagar mela is an annual pilgrimage for Hindus, held every year during the makar sankranti festival, when thousands from all over India gather on West Bengal’s Sagar island in order to “get rid of their earthly sins”.

The remark has stirred outrage among a section of the people, that the government was showing a casual approach in case of gatherings at religious festivals while refusing to re-open educational institutes shut down due to the third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mamata Banerjee’s unsubstantiated statement on the anti-Covid properties of salt water is however not the first time we are hearing such silly claims from a high-ranking public representative in the context of Covid.

During the early days of the pandemic, on March 2 of 2020, Suman Haripriya, an elected representative from the Bharatiya Janata Party, said that cow-urine and cow dung can be deployed as a remedy against Covid infections. Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and one of the poster boys of Hindutva in India, even asked citizens to practice yoga in order to gain strength against several diseases, including COVID-19.

Again in December of 2020, Union Minister Ramdas Athawale claimed that his slogan “Go corona, Corona go” was meant to ‘drive away’ the Covid pandemic. He didn’t stop there, rather he hinted that he is working on coming up with ‘new slogans’, in order to fight the newer strains of the virus!

If this were not enough, the Union Ministry of AYUSH, set up to promote and regulate so-called traditional practices of medicine, put out a statement claiming that homeopathy can be used as a preventive treatment for COVID, while UNANI can be used for symptomatic treatment.

COVID Response Watch LogoJust before the second wave of Covid last year assembly elections in five States were underway. We saw huge gatherings being allowed by the Election Commission and state authorities, without observing any kind of physical distancing norms. In West Bengal, the election was in a marathon of eight phases. Back in 2020, the then-President of West Bengal BJP Dilip Ghosh, known for his loose talk said that drinking cow urine helps to battle Covid. Allegedly, many go-mutra parties were also held. During the elections Prime Minister Narendra Modi became a frequent traveler to West Bengal. In one rally, he mentioned, he had never seen such a huge gathering. Don’t be mistaken, this was not a criticism rather it was praise for the crowd which gathered for the rally in the midst of a global pandemic.

We can go on with the list of the depths our elected representatives sunk to during the Covid pandemic. So why is it that in the second decade of the 21st Century people holding responsible positions are putting forward such ridiculous opinions?

To understand this we have to go back a few years earlier when the century old gathering of the Indian Science Congress made the headlines for the worst of reasons. The vice-chancellor of Andhra University, G.N. Rao asserted at the Congress that Indians had stem cell technology and the procedure to create test tube babies even during the period of the Mahabharata. Assuming the Mahabharata is not just  a mythological tale but has some fragments of real history – Dr Rao was referring to a period at least a couple of millennia before our own times.

Now, we must remember that this was not happening at any other public gathering but at a gathering of scientists, where even Nobel laureates were present. What implications do these kinds of incidents have in shaping the trajectory of our nation’s collective thinking? This is definitely a worrying sign. As the Indian government – a proponent of the extreme rightwing Hindutva ideology- tightens its grip on Indian society, it needs to distract the masses with tall claims- however far-fetched, especially about the country’s ‘glorious Hindu past’. So, when GN Rao, a professor of inorganic chemistry claims that the Kauravas were born using stem cell technology, one cannot help but think of it as part of the “Hindu” revivalist project of the current ruling dispensation.

In terms of the economy, the ruling BJP actually doesn’t have anything to offer to the people that is radically different from its predecessors. To make them stand out in a crowded political field the only card they have is to push the idea of ‘Hindu glory’. This and only this could help them to secure their much-needed support base, especially among upper-caste Hindus. The pandemic however brought about a new challenge to their plans- as it required real responses and not fake ones. They needed to show the public that their ideology is equipped to provide them with a lifeline during the pandemic.

Pseudoscience has always given legitimacy to fascist governments. In a book on the Nazis of Germany named “Hitler’s monsters”, Eric Kurlander has shown how supernatural ideas, and ideas derived from religious myths had helped Hitler in garnering mass support for his German supremacy project. The current rulers in India are following in the footsteps of the Nazis. They are propagating these pseudo-scientific notions among the people. These are usually easy to believe, and you don’t need to think much either if you believe in these notions. The insecurities and stresses of day-to-day life can lead the masses into the clutches of such pseudoscience. What is worrying of course is that the current government is pushing these superstitions institutionally, through various state agencies.

The pandemic has shown us the real situation of India’s health infrastructure. Especially during the second wave of the pandemic we saw the collapse of the health system before our very eyes. The shortages of oxygen and hospital beds claimed many lives. Many lost their lives due to lack of facilities and good infrastructure.

Today, many Indians can easily understand the need for increasing the budget allocation for the health sector, and the importance of establishing a universal public health system. However much the adherents of pseudoscience try to derail these aspirations, only the pursuit of a scientific public health system and policies can help India face future pandemics in a better way than it has dealt with the current one.

Arka Deep is a researcher based in Bolpur, West Bengal

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