A video of Baba Ramdev slandering Allopathy and accusing the system of medicine to be responsible for the death of lakhs of COVID-19 infected people has done its fair rounds on social media. While the Patanjali Yogpeeth Trust on Saturday “clarified” his statements and their intent, he can in no way be absolved of the criticism of peddling pseudoscience.
Baba Ramdev’s claims are extremely dangerous, especially in the pandemic situation that India is currently in.
It is no news that this multi-billionaire has built his empire selling an unverified and hence unscientific system of medicine; however, what makes it relevant now is that he is in a relentless pursuit of expanding this empire even amidst a pandemic that has had the entire nation gasping for breath. In June 2020, when the scientific community was still struggling to devise a comprehensive treatment procedure for COVID-19, he launched what he claimed to be the “first Ayurvedic cure” for the disease based on a trial conducted on just 280 patients!
Despite the backlash from the scientific community, the Ayush ministry permitted the sale of this product as long as it is sold as an “immunity booster”.
Fast forward a few months to February 2021 when we saw the Union Health Minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan and Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari at the launch ceremony of the same “medicine” alongside the release of a “scientific research paper” supporting the claim by Patanjali that it is the “first evidence-based medicine” for COVID-19 that has received certification from the AYUSH (the acronym for Ayurveda, Yoga, Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, Sowa-Rigpa, and Homoeopathy) Ministry as per the WHO certification scheme, a claim that WHO soon clarified to be untrue.
While the pseudoscientific claims or prophecies of a God-man might not come as a surprise to most Indians, the unwavering and unhidden state support that he receives should be examined as together they are widening the cracks and crevices of an already fragile public health system. The God-man figure of Baba Ramdev and his endorsement of traditional systems of medicine has indeed provided a fillip to the right-wing extremist ideology that seeks to exalt and popularise anything that seems to have an Indian origin.
The tendency of this regime to support alternative medicine systems for the sake of jingoism is precisely what led to the formation of the AYUSH Ministry just months after it came to power in 2014, which was previously just a Department of Indian Systems of Medicine and Homoeopathy under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. The “research” that is said to be conducted by this Ministry upholds little of what is today accepted as the scientific method.
It is biased in its approach to the scientific question and quick to conclude anything favoring their chosen belief (proof of which is their endorsement of Coronil as an “immunity booster”) and has little regard for the ideas of reproducibility of results and rigorous external review.
Even before this hyper nationalistic narrative gained wider traction, these alternative systems of medicines have had a considerable consumer base, be it the popularity of Ayurveda among the upper castes and the urban elite or the relatively affordable medical support it offered the poor in our country where a lack of public health facilities is juxtaposed with the exorbitantly high charges demanded by the private sector.
The prevalence of these alternative systems across the country must be read in conjunction with the acute lack of scientific temper among the populace and a growing state-sanctioned spread of pseudoscientific news and practices, which makes it much more convenient for people to reject the solutions devised by modern medicines and resort to other methods that aren’t even necessarily authorized. This can prove not just ineffective but also potentially harmful.
The ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party is complicit and even actively supported the spread of pseudoscientific methods in India.
Let us not forget that the leaders of the ruling party have not hesitated to advocate the use of gaumutra (cow urine) for the treatment of COVID-19. While this clamor for unscientific practices might come from the higher echelons of power, those that reap the consequences of these are inevitably the most vulnerable in our country.
In the wake of a worsening pandemic and a growing number of reported cases of mucormycosis, the government needs to immediately stop funding unscientific practices of medicine, hold its practitioners accountable and be proactive in prebunking to prevent pseudoscientific news from doing rounds among the masses for it to hold any credibility in blaming the opposition for issues like the vaccine hesitancy among people.
Those in power at the moment have clearly done much more damage to the overall scientific temper of the people by spreading manufactured, unscientific news and weakening people’s confidence in modern science.
We might be able to vote the right-wing nationalists out of power someday, but the culture of barbarism and pseudoscience that they ingrain in the people would take much longer to mitigate and threatens to destabilize any genuine progress that has been and can be achieved in the field of public health and community welfare.