Blending nationalism and pseudoscience, the “cures” touted by an Indian ministry should raise public health concerns during a pandemic.
The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) found 50 campaigns by Ayurvedic and homeopathic drug makers that marketed their products as cures for Covid-19.
The campaigns were dated from April and advertised across media platforms.
They were found to be in violation of the Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy (AYUSH) order that prohibits publicity and advertisement of AYUSH-related claims.
The ASCI has flagged them to the government for action.
AYUSH had enlisted the body to help alert them to false advertising related to misleading information that claims prevention or cure for Covid-19.
A list of 50 companies that were made public include those falsely advertising homoeopathic medicines like Arsenicum Album 30, which is being used widely as a Covid-19 prevention drug.
The ASCI disclosure comes a day after the Indian government issued a gag order against yoga guru Baba Ramdev from advertising a drug as a Covid-19 cure.
Ramdev, the billionaire founder and head of major traditional medicine manufacturer Patanjali, held an event on Tuesday unveiling a tablet called Coronil which, he claimed, had cured 100 percent of Covid-19 patients within seven days.
AYUSH stepped in to block the product from going to market until the government has been provided with enough information by Patanjali to support its claims, it said in a statement.
However, under the ministry’s guidance, the use of homoeopathy has become increasingly prevalent in several Indian states.
Even more worrying is that it comes in the midst of a pandemic, with local governments offering unproven homoeopathic treatments such as immunity boosters or prophylactics to help prevent disease contraction.
That isn’t to say India won’t play a formative role in the search for a Covid-19 vaccine. It is among the largest manufacturers of generic drugs and vaccines in the world.
Serum Institute of India, a globally prolific vaccine maker, is one of many Indian firms collaborating with US biotech companies to develop a vaccine, along with a number of home-grown vaccines which are in early stages of development.
But as infection cases and the death toll surge in the country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration has assented to some measures that are in contradiction with the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommendations.
Undermining Public health
The promotion of alternative medicines as treatment for the virus takes place under the rule of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), known for supporting Hindutva, a form of nationalism that seeks to transform India from a secular nation to a Hindu one.
In the four months since the pandemic hit India, part of the Modi-led government’s response has been marked by pseudoscientific remedies like homoeopathy to semi-scientific Ayurveda treatments, all backed by AYUSH.
In some instances, the healing properties of cow urine have been touted as a cure for numerous illnesses. AYUSH minister Shripad Naik made several comments in parliament on undertaking research to promote its use.
On March 17, a BJP activist in Kolkata organised a “gomutra (cow urine) party” to ward off Covid-19.
The AYUSH ministry continues to give license to such practices; its research portal includes papers on the uses of panchagavya, the five cow-derived products and their medicinal uses.
No where is the government’s pseudoscientific approach better demonstrated than in Gujarat – Modi’s home state and one of the worst hotspots for the virus in the country.
Since the state reported its first Covid-19 case on 19 March, it now has a reported 29,000 confirmed cases – the third highest in the country after Maharashtra and Delhi – and 1,736 deaths. It has the highest mortality rate at 6.1 percent, ahead of the national average of 3.32 percent.
Going against scientific wisdom of extensive contact tracing and testing, the Gujarat government instead distributed homoeopathy pills and Ayurvedic mixtures in those virus hotspots.
Jayanti Ravi, the state’s health secretary, said in a press briefing that the government handed 3,585 people doses of kadha, or decoction, describing it as a “concoction of various Ayurvedic treatments.”
Ravi said 2,625 people were further given doses of sanshamani vati, an Ayurvedic treatment that purportedly treats fevers, and Arsenicum Album 30 – a course that AYUSH had recommended back in January.
As cases rapidly spread, even government employees, health workers and administrative staff and others on the front lines were given these medicines.
Meanwhile on May 18, when Mumbai reported over 35,000 cases and more than 1,200 deaths, Praveen Cheeda, a BJP municipal administrator, distributed 200 bottles of homoeopathic pills in the area of Ghatkopar. The same week, Riddhi Kursange, another BJP member, distributed 10,000 bottles of Arsenicum Album 30.
The Ayurveda industry
Since 2014, the field of public health has come under ideological attack. Alternative therapies – many of which have their roots in India, such as Ayurveda – are considered more “Indian” than modern medicine, and supporting them becomes an opportunity to co-opt it within a broader nationalist agenda.
The ministry has faced some institutional backlash. The Press Council of India, the statutory body responsible for maintaining good media standards, issued an order asking print media to stop publicity and advertisements of AYUSH-related claims for Covid-19 treatments.
But AYUSH has not only continued to receive political support, but a significant portion of the annual health budget.
From 2019 to 2020, the Indian government apportioned $250 million for the study and promotion of alternative medicines, a 15 percent increase from the previous year.
Added to this is the politicisation of Ayurveda. A leader from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant organisation with a long history of promoting Hindutva, recently said that Ayurveda is part of India’s “soft power” in the region.
There are nearly 800,000 practitioners of alternative medicine in India, and more than 650 colleges teaching courses related to it. The Ayurvedic industry overall is worth $4.4 billion, and is expected to grow by 16 percent in the next five years.
That AYUSH exists in part to protect the commercial interests of this burgeoning industry would hardly be a surprise.