India's Covid-19 crisis gives rise to strange remedies

With hospitals overwhelmed, a range of questionable preventives and cures are being touted

Indian doctors wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) examine patients inside a Covid 19 care centre and isolation ward facility near a Hospital in New Delhi, India, 14 May 2021. EPA
Indian doctors wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) examine patients inside a Covid 19 care centre and isolation ward facility near a Hospital in New Delhi, India, 14 May 2021. EPA

From worshipping a “corona goddess” to bathing in cow dung, Indians are being offered a host of unproven and unconventional ways to survive a deadly second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The coronavirus has infected more than 24 million people in India so far and killed more than 266,000, most of them since a rapid spread that began in March.

With hospitals and clinics struggling to cope with the hundreds of thousands of new cases each day, the crisis has led many in India’s deeply conservative and religious society to either seek divine help or resort to alternative remedies based on pseudoscience, superstition or outright misinformation.

In the poor and largely rural eastern state of Bihar, villagers in the Siwan region are thronging to a “Corona goddess” temple set up by a local Hindu godman, who has called on them to make offerings of fruit and milk to gain her protection from the pandemic.

Hundreds of kilometres to the south, a numerologist in Andhra Pradesh state claims that the pandemic can be defeated by changing the spelling of coronavirus and the disease it causes.

S V Annandda Rao is urging people to spell corona as “Caronaa” and Covid-19 as “Covvid-19” and to use the altered spellings in public places to beat the disease.

“This is a guarantee as it is divine power as per numerology,” reads a banner set up by Mr Rao.

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014, India has experienced not only a rise in Hindu nationalism but also a race to revive and adopt traditional – and sometimes scientifically questionable – ideas and practices.

In Mr Modi’s home state of Gujarat, Covid-19 patients with mild symptoms are being “treated” with a combination of herbs and the dung and urine of cows, considered a sacred animal in Hinduism.

“We had developed the medicine last year after the pandemic outbreak but started offering treatment to patients a week ago,” said Ram Ratan Das, the head of the cow shelter in Tetoda village where the treatment is being offered.

We give the patients a steam of cow urine, and medicine made from cow urine mixed with yoghurt and other herbs

Ram Ratan Das, cow shelter chief

Out of 20 patients admitted so far, 12 have recovered after taking the medicines made from cow urine and other herbs, and steam inhalation of a cow urine distillate, Mr Das told The National.

“We give the patients a steam of cow urine, and medicine made from cow urine mixed with yoghurt and other herbs," he said.

“They also take a bath with a mixture of cow urine and cow dung every morning. This has cured the patients.”

Mr Modi’s government has also been promoting unproven traditional medicines as a preventive measure against the virus.

The Ministry of Ayush, set up under Mr Modi to promote Ayurveda, naturopathy, homeopathy and yoga, has advised steam inhalation with mint or eucalyptus oil once a day, as well as applying ghee – clarified butter – made from cow’s milk in the nostrils twice a day, and drinking warm water to keep the virus at bay and to boost immunity.

Last year, Mr Modi recommended the use of alternative medicine systems against the virus and suggested a range of home remedies advised by the ministry, including drinking warm water and a concoction of herbs known as kada to ward off infection.

Indians are also promoting home remedies for Covid-19, such as eating raw onion with rock salt and using camphor for steam inhalation, in messages shared on social media and messaging apps.

Medical practitioners are upset by this propagation of scientifically untested remedies, particularly by the government, as they struggle against the pandemic.

“I respect Ayurveda but there has to be some research. When unscientific methods have been promoted by the government as immunity builders … why has Covid not gone away? Why are we looking at vaccines?” Dr Ranjan Sharma, former president of the Indian Medical Association, told The National.

The IMA, the country’s top body of practitioners of modern medicine, filed a police complaint against Baba Ramdev, a self-styled yoga guru, over a recent video in which he downplays the seriousness of Covid-19 and the drop in blood-oxygen levels that it causes.

“Covid patients just don’t know how to breathe properly … these are your two cylinders,” he says in the video while pointing at his nostrils. The legs are “two doctors”, he adds.

The claims have exasperated doctors, who say Mr Ramdev is misleading patients and pushing them to their deathbeds.

“He advised sick people how to take oxygen … he is completely misleading the people of the country. He mocked the patients and then he said one’s arms and legs are doctors. That is an insult to us,” Dr Navjot Dahiya, the IMA’s national vice president, told The National.

Mr Ramdev’s herbal remedy company, Patanjali, has also caused controversy with claims that its Coronil tablets were recognised by the World Health Organisation as a treatment for Covid-19.

Soon after the announcement at a company press conference in February, which was attended by Indian Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan, the WHO denied issuing any such approval.

"WHO has not reviewed or certified the effectiveness of any traditional medicine for the treatment #COVID19," the global health body said in a tweet, without naming Patanjali or Coronil.

Updated: May 15, 2021 10:10 PM

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