That COVID-19 is best left to the scientists, particularly epidemiologists, was accentuated starkly – in fact, bizarrely – by no less than US President Donald Trump. His remarks during a press conference about the possibility of ultraviolet light and injectable disinfectants to deal with the virus was at the very least irresponsible and injudicious. While he tried to defend himself, very unconvincingly, by saying he was only being sarcastic, and while his supporters quibbled that he didn’t mean inject when he used the word, there is no doubting that such off-the-cuff speculation, particularly by someone who holds such high office, is inexcusably hazardous. The surfeit of bleach memes that the incident has spawned was amusing, but it took horrified medical experts all over the country, as well as a couple of major disinfectant manufacturers, to warn that such products were not to be consumed or injected in any form.
As the pandemic spreads around the world, so does the number of people who tout fake cures and unscientific preventive measures. What makes matters worse is that many of these people are those who occupy positions of influence and authority. The priestly class in all denominations have urged people to continue with religious gatherings on the grounds that the worship of God is an insurance against the disease. And tracking coronavirus on social media is sometimes to negotiate a minefield of wild claims and dubious cures.
India is in a particularly bad space when it comes to quacks, who exist in staggering numbers and in every part of the country. The lack of doctors, particularly in remote areas, have provided a lush breeding ground for all kinds of quackery. The odd report of the arrests of quacks – including one from Tamil Nadu who claimed he had developed a coronavirus vaccine – is only the tip of the iceberg. As the virus spreads, it is imperative that such people are prevented from selling fake preventive medicine and non-existent cures.
The problem of course goes well beyond low-level quackery. We have those who propagate cow urine as a therapy or believe that holding a religious ceremony will ward off the virus. But more seriously, even the Ayush system, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged people to follow, needs to be understood for what it is. There is no harm for instance in doing yoga or having a herbal health supplement if it is clearly understood that the best these can do is to improve the immune system. But the line between assuming something is an immunity booster and a cure is very thin and has been blurred by the champions of alternative medicine. Since some of the drugs prescribed are said to be for the symptomatic treatment of coronavirus, there is even greater confusion about the efficacy of these prescriptions.