To Tackle a Virus, Indian Officials Peddle Pseudoscience
When it was announced in late March that Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, was well on his way to recovering from Covid-19, there was some celebration 4,000 miles away in India, a former British colony. But it was not colonial nostalgia that brought on the cheer, so much as the declaration a few days later by an Indian government minister that the Prince of Wales had been cured using Ayurveda — a blend of, among other things, herbal medicine, breathing exercises, and meditation.
At an April 2 press conference, Shripad Naik, India’s minister for alternative medicines, declared that the treatment’s supposed success “validates our age-old practice.” The British government swiftly issued a statement rejecting his claim. “This information is incorrect. The Prince of Wales followed the medical advice of the National Health Service in the U.K. and nothing more,” a spokesperson said the following day.
But this hasn’t deterred Naik’s Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy — or AYUSH for short — from promoting Indian alternative medicines as treatments for Covid-19. Established in 2014, the goal of AYUSH is to develop and popularize these treatments, many of which have their historical roots in India. Ayurveda, for example, has been practiced in India for thousands of years.
Now, Naik said, the ministry aims to confirm that Prince Charles was cured using a combination of Ayurveda and the pseudoscience known as homeopathy, which has its roots in Germany, so that the treatment can be rolled out to the masses. This is in stark contrast to the position of mainstream medicine, which has not yet confirmed any evidence-based medicine for Covid-19, and is still highly cautious of giving experimental drugs to patients.
Many experts say that statements like Naik’s are false and dangerous, particularly now that the country is struggling to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, among its 1.35 billion people. With a lack of testing and a shortage of physicians, many experts feel the Indian government is failing its people by directing attention and resources to unsubstantiated and unscientific practices — especially when these practices themselves can be harmful.
And yet for many, the actions of the right-wing Indian government don’t come as a surprise. Aside from the popularity of alternative medicine in India generally, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is known for supporting Hindutva, a form of nationalism that seeks to transform India from being a secular nation into an openly Hindu one. This partly plays out in the field of health, where alternative therapies that have their roots in India, such as Ayurveda, are considered more “Hindu” or “Indian” than modern medicine. Supporting them becomes an opportunity to push forward this nationalist agenda.
In the early days of the epidemic, AYUSH heavily promoted therapies that lack an evidence base, said Sumaiya Shaikh, a neuroscientist based at the Center for Social and Affective Neuroscience at Linköping University Hospital in Sweden. Shaikh is also editor of science at Alt News, an Indian website that works to expose misinformation.
Examples of treatments pushed by AYUSH included a homeopathic medicine containing diluted arsenic, an Ayurvedic drug developed by the ministry to treat malaria, and dietary changes including drinking warm water, putting sesame oil inside the nose, or consuming holy basil, ginger, cloves, and turmeric. The ministry suggested these interventions could prevent people from developing Covid-19 as well as treat its symptoms.
“There was some amount of criticism to that,” said Shaikh. And so in response, the ministry provided a list of “scientific evidence” to bolster its claims. Aside from the fact that homeopathy has been repeatedly shown to have no biological effects, Shaikh said that when she and her team reviewed the list, the only actual research they could find was one analysis that examined the the same homeopathic treatment in bovines with gastric infections. Despite this, the ministry’s promotion of the therapy increased demand in many Indian states.
This isn’t the first time the ministry has faced criticism for promoting unscientific claims or backing research derived from religious myths and beliefs. One of its repeated focuses has been cow urine, which is believed by many Hindus to have healing properties given the sacred nature of cows in Hinduism. The urine has been touted as a treatment for many illnesses, including diabetes, epilepsy, and AIDS. Naik himself has made several comments in parliament about how cow urine can cure cancer. In reality, its use can be dangerous.
Thoughts or questions on Covid-19?
In fact, so widespread is the belief in cow urine that on March 17, an activist working for the BJP in Kolkata organized a “gomutra (cow urine) party” to ward off Covid-19. He believed that drinking the urine would protect them from the disease. Unfortunately, one of the volunteers fell seriously ill after ingesting the urine.
The Ministry of AYUSH’s research portal carries papers on the uses of panchagavya, the five products derived from a cow, of which urine is one, supporting its use as a medical product. However, Ipsita Mohanty, who co-wrote a paper listed there titled “Diversified Uses of Cow Urine,” said in an email that she couldn’t definitively answer whether cow urine fights off Covid-19, as “it has not been proven by independent researchers.”
This reflects how AYUSH researchers and doctors seek validation, explained Shaikh. “If a paper gets published anywhere — doesn’t matter what type of journal it is or how bad the statistics are — they take it as scientific proof,” she said, adding that the alternative medicine community also has a lot of journals of its own. These are regulated and edited by the same people who are published in them, Shaikh said.
Despite being an advocate of cow urine, Mohanty urges doctors to not spread misinformation. “It is misleading to spread the rumor about something so important when more than half of our world is engulfed by Covid-19,” she said. “There is no vaccine nor any treatment for it. At this point, promoting cow urine against Covid-19 can be very fatal, as people might resort to it for treatment as their only hope.”
The Ministry of AYUSH did not respond to requests for comments from Undark.
“Practitioners of such therapies get their clientele from two distinct groups,” said Aniket Sule, a science education researcher and astronomer at the Homi Bhabha Center for Science Education. He is part of a steadily growing rationalist movement in India that is encouraging dialogue and critical thinking to counter misinformation, including within the realm of alternative medicine.
The first group Sule identified is patients from impoverished communities and remote villages, “who don’t have access to doctors prescribing modern medicines.” The other set of clients is the “affluent and educated class in the cities, who have read half-baked internet posts and develop strong skepticism towards modern medicines,” he said.
“Pushing such a narrative to gullible masses is akin to actively spreading misinformation, and senior functionaries of government should take strict action against such baseless propaganda,” he urged.
The ministry has faced some institutional backlash. The Press Council of India, the statutory body responsible for maintaining good media standards, has issued an order asking print media to stop publicity and advertisements of AYUSH-related claims for Covid-19 treatments.
But despite that, the Ministry of AYUSH continues not only to receive political backing but also a large share of the annual health budget. From 2019 to 2020, the Indian government allotted approximately $250 million for study and promotion of alternative medicines, a 15 percent increase from the previous year. According to Shaikh, only the defense ministry saw a larger proportional increase to its budget last year.
Indian scientists fighting disinformation say there is an underlying nationalist agenda to this move. Certain radical groups affiliated with the government have dreams of spreading Hindu values beyond India’s borders to create an “Akhand Bharat,” or “consolidated Hindu nation,” which would include annexing a large part of the Indian subcontinent. One of these is Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a militant organization that has a long history of promoting Hindutva. Its leader recently said that Ayurveda is part of India’s “soft power” in the South Asian region, said Shaikh.
The Press Council of India, the statutory body responsible for maintaining good media standards, has issued an order asking print media to stop publicity and advertisements of AYUSH-related claims for Covid-19 treatments.
Since coming to power in 2014, India’s current government (BJP) has increasingly backed divisive policies that consolidate the power of the majoritarian Hindu population. “Overall, this government has made virtue out of extreme and thoughtless nationalism. Increased support to all these questionable therapies is a natural byproduct of that,” Sule said, adding there is also a distinct motivation among many people who believe in these claims. “There are people who are so completely blinded by ‘glorious ancient India’ that they willingly walk into any trap if it is presented as ‘this is what our great ancestors did,’” he said.
Sule also thinks that AYUSH exists, in part, to protect commercial interests. There are nearly 800,000 practitioners of alternative medicine in India, he said, and over 650 colleges teaching related courses. The Ayurveda industry alone in India is worth $4.4 billion and is expected to grow by 16 percent in the next five years.
Shaikh, Sule, and others have been critical of the Ministry of AYUSH for years, exposing and unmasking its questionable research and dubious medical advice. “It is very dangerous, especially now. We are the only country that has a parallel ministry for alternative systems,” Shaikh said. “Why not just have the one ministry and then have everything under it? Use whatever herbs you want, but run them through appropriate trials, and if they work then they should be in the mainstream and everybody should benefit from them,” she said.
Shaikh doesn’t call for closing the ministry but insists the way it works needs to change.
“Don’t start with a belief system, start with the hypothesis,” she advised. “Don’t start with the basis that this drug is going to work. Start with realizing that ‘we don’t know and we want to find out.’ That is unbiased research.”
Dear Mr. RuchiKumar
Here i have a few queries on article “To Tackle a Virus, Indian Officials Peddle Pseudoscience”, pls clarify
1. How do u call AYUSH system as a PSUEDOSCIENCE? do u have proof for your false claim?
2. Why AYUSH courses considered as professional degree courses in INDIA?
3.FACT: Vitamin and mineral supplements cannot cure COVID-19; FACT: Studies show hydroxychloroquine does not have clinical benefits in treating COVID-19 – are you aware of these facts?
4.Do you think ancient Indians/our ancestors could combat diseases only due to so called actual sciences other than psuedoscience?
5. Do you think few millions people across the globe follow AYUSH medications for many ailments just only because of any tom dick and harry!!! Really!
6. If present Indian officials/ministry is misguiding, Mr.Ruchi Kumar could you pls give a best SCIENTIFIC solution to eradicate COVID19 from INDIA!
Pls note: Even you cannot term INDIAN system of medicine with any wrong terms due to your PSEUDO knowledge!!
Covid-19 brought not only calamity but controversies also .When Ayush ministry G.O.I suggested Homeopathic drug Arsenic Alba 30for prophylactic against covid-19 there was an uproar from medical profession lead by Indian Medical Association , declaring Homeopathy as PSEUDO science .It seems a paradox to me that such highly trained specialist should down face Homeopathy simply because they have never studied ,understood and practiced it .In case of Homeopathy double blind clinical trials , ultra diluted drugs , and placebo effects are the main obstacle .This fundamental work is hampered by some methodological and under investment .Does it mean immediate need of those who are sick and suffering should be abandoned in favour of research .
Treatment of animals with Homeopathy needs neither money , laboratories nor investment but provides valuable results . I treat every day animals sufferings from various diseases exclusively with Homeopathy successfully .Not a tall claim but convincing work with treatment / result . I invite all sceptics to my clinic to watch sickness , treatment ,result and interaction with beneficiaries in person ( no peer reviewed publications )and then decide ,it is effective or not .
The crux of this article is that Ayurveda is psuedoscience. Why? Because of absence of evidence. But we know in science, absence of evidence is NOT evidence of absence. While critiquing a traditional health practice the author has overlooked that they themselves have started with a belief, not a hypothesis. Many statements about the promotion of unproven claims are correct. The solution is not more division, but integration of the traditional with modern biomedical research.
It is not a question of how old or how long. Please submit all such researches for testing and double blind clinical trials. Just faith cannot be sole reason for promoting ideas. This is what is science all about.
If we have turmeric ginger or whatever test for specific treatment for specific disease get clinical proof and all clearances from international health organizations. This Corona is of animal origin. We don’t know germs cow urine may contain as all body waste have live germs
It’s stupid to declare that Ayurveda and Homeopathy are pseudoscience. World over, Ayurveda is being integrated with conventional medicine and is providing great results. Everybody knows Western medicine is not perfect nor complete and that integrative medicine is the future.
Pseudoscience HAHA!!! HOMEOPATHY HAS BEEM AROUMD FOR OVER TWO DECADES successfully treating patients.
So HOW IS MODERN MEDICINE WORKING OUT TO TREAT PATIENTS DYING FROM COVID-19????
I’m concerned about the description of a homeopathic “remedy” containing dilute arsenic misleading some readers. If it’s homeopathic, it’s based on the presumption that the less likely there is to be a trace of arsenic in a chemist’s assay, the more powerful the “arsenic-based” remedy will be.
Also this article is written by a person with zero knowledge of medical science. Turmeric is already proven to be anticancer and antiinflammatory in thousands of studies. So does it become hindutva agenda if we have turmeric latte to prevent infection?? I think the era of idiocracy is already here lol!
I think this article is written for more views rather than information. I am a scientist and I have been testing the effect of ayurvedic herbs in my lab. They have shown extremely beneficial effects against even the worst kind of bacteria that do not die when treated with any antibiotics. So I am surprised that this pseudo journalist wants to say that ginger never worked better against cold and cough????? I had suffered with bronchitis for a big part of my life and used virtually all cough medication available and finally only ginger juice with honey worked!!! Is that pseudoscience? Wow! If govt gives simple remedies to its citizens to stay healthy somehow it became hindutva agenda….no wonder I dont most journalists
I found your comments fascinating. I have cured Asthma after quitting allopathy like you did with bronchitis .
I’m interested in your lab research data. I’d be highly grateful for the same. I’m at email@example.com. Thank you very much.
Just saw your mesg. Will email you.
Thanks for noticing!
Couldn’t agree more. Much better to inject bleach.
Good journalism is not simply opinion. If a claim is made it needs to be proven.
Ayurveda has a history of efficacy centuries old and Homeopathy has more than two centuries under its belt.
The fact that modern medicine, Allopathic, is a tool of the pharmaceutical industry which seeks to destroy all other medical modalities, does not make such sloppy writing acceptable.
Allopathic medicine has killed and injured many with its toxic drugs and its use of ventilators, where 80% so treated, die, when it does not understand the disease.
What hypocrisy to then condemn other modalities which are generally not being used because the chemists cannot make billions out of their use.
Honestly, your comment sounds much more knowledgeable than this article. Cheers!
I truly believe you Roslyn and without any doubt support you for your views as I be been on homeopathy for past 20 years, pharmacists the name of the game which give big money for modern medicine and alternative medicine will prevail
CORONAVIRUS 04/23/2020 09:48 pm ET Updated 6 hours ago
Trump Ponders Whether Light Or Disinfectant Injections Can ‘Cure’ Coronavirus
The president again pushed unproven treatments for COVID-19 that health officials are wary of.
Sloppy journalism and sloppy comment. what Trump said was, ‘it would be great if they (science-medicine) could look at the use of UV light and ‘disinfectant.’
Light for healing has been studied for sometime but it won’t get anywhere unless the pharmaceutical industry finds a way to make billions out of it.
And given the toxic chemicals in vaccines which are injected into the body, including those which act as disinfectants, the bagging of Trump would be funny if it were not so deadly.
Ruchi has become a judge and jury also. Whereas I agree with her criticism about the tendency of AYUSH or its related ministers to promote the pseudoscience, I also see an agenda here to putdown the current government and that is just an opinion of minority as the government was elected by people. Don’t mix science and politics and just stick to the main objective. Otherwise you are not much different than those pushing pseudoscience.
What a load of crap?
Have you heard of placebo effect? If you believe in something, it’s likely to be more effective. The underlying reasons are quite complex and based on how mind influences body.
You don’t have evidence that none of these are effective, do you?
Public health recommendations work on statistical inference. They may or may not work for any given individual. That’s where doctor’s judgment comes in.
If Ayurveda has no benefit, it wouldn’t have survived for 3000 years.
And no-one has yet explained how, if Homeopathy is placebo solely, it demonstrates effect on plants, animals, unconscious humans and animals, as it does.
One thing is certain, those who choose to bag herbal medicine and Homeopathy never bother to do enough research to make themselves sound remotely as if they know what they are talking about.
And this is the crap you picked up from erudite india .. a land of 1.3 billion.
Congrats. I am not propagating Amy one steam of medicine… however I take string exception to the way you portray us as a country and it’s people. May we exchange views when you have finally embraced what your own country is all about. Till then I pray for you. Unless you have strong exception to the way I pray too