In the four months since the novel coronavirus pandemic hit India, the Narendra Modi led-government’s response has indisputably been marked by bad science, from pseudo-scientific remedies such as homeopathy to semi-scientific Ayurveda treatments, all backed by the Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy, or AYUSH. In many states, governments are offering homeopathic treatments—globally unproven to be effective—as immunity boosters or prophylactics, to help prevent the contraction of a disease. With the death toll surging rapidly in the last few weeks, the Modi administration has continued to stick by measures that contradict the World Health Organization’s recommended responses to the pandemic as well as the accepted scientific wisdom of the twenty-first century.
The distaste for scientific evidence has been a consistent feature of the Modi government since it came to power in May 2014. One of its first decisions was to elevate the department of Indian medicine and homeopathy to the status of a ministry—AYUSH. In June that year, Dr Harsh Vardhan, the newly appointed health minister, visited the National AIDS Control Organization’s office in Central Delhi. Speaking on the government’s measures to combat HIV and AIDS, Vardhan advised NACO officials to focus on promoting “abstinence” instead of the successful measure of condom distribution—NACO had found that 86 percent of AIDS cases in India were a result of unprotected sex. The newly elected government’s emphasis on AYUSH was accompanied by cuts to other major health programmes, including those for HIV & AIDS, and tuberculosis intervention, and the National Health Mission, the government’s scheme for delivering health under-served areas.
Nowhere is this government’s approach better illustrated than in Gujarat—Modi’s home state, which he led with an iron fist for 13 years, and which he continues to lead by proxy. With the state’s cases among the highest in the country, the government’s public-health policy decisions of the past six years are chickens coming home to roost. The government in Gujarat has steadfastly backed the use of pseudo- and un-scientific methods to tackle the pandemic, even as its testing rates have plateaued despite a rise in coronavirus cases. It has turned its quarantine centres into a site for “experiments” for pseudo-scientific remedies, where the government did not appear to have adhered to any research protocols prescribed under Indian law.