Gujarat illustrates the Modi government’s science denialism during the coronavirus pandemic

22 June 2020
Homeopathic medicines that the Gujarat government provided residents in Varsana, in Baroda, after several cases of the novel coronavirus were detected in the area. Instead of resorting to scientific wisdom—which necessitates contact tracing and testing—the Gujarat government appears to be focussing on pseudo- and un-scientific treatments to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Homeopathic medicines that the Gujarat government provided residents in Varsana, in Baroda, after several cases of the novel coronavirus were detected in the area. Instead of resorting to scientific wisdom—which necessitates contact tracing and testing—the Gujarat government appears to be focussing on pseudo- and un-scientific treatments to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

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. 

Gujarat has emerged as one of the worst hotspots for the virus in India. The state reported its first COVID-19 case on 19 March. At the time of publishing, the state had reported 27,260 confirmed cases—the third highest in the country after Maharashtra and Delhi. With 1,663 deaths, Gujarat has the highest mortality rate among all states, of 6.1 percent—far ahead of the national average of 3.32 per cent. As of 22 June, according to the Gujarat government website, Ahmedabad alone had recorded 1,332 deaths. The total number of cases in the city is not listed on the government website, but according to news reports, as of 7 June, it had recorded over twenty-thousand cases. 

Going against scientific wisdom, which calls for extensive contact tracing and testing, the Gujarat government has instead distributed homeopathy pills and Ayurvedic mixtures in hotpots. In Vasana, a residential area in Baroda, the state government prescribed homeopathic medicine for certain neighbourhoods where cases had been discovered. On 11 May, “my building was sealed, after a neighbour tested positive,” a 21-year-old resident of an apartment complex in the area, who asked not to be named, told me. “The residents have a WhatsApp group, in which we were informed that no one is allowed outside anymore. I was freaking out,” she said. 

Vidya Krishnan is a writer and journalist. Her first book, Phantom Plague: The Untold Story of How Tuberculosis Shaped our History, will be published by PublicAffairs in 2021.

Keywords: COVID-19 Gujarat alt-med Homeopathy Ayurveda AYUSH
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