Exuberant irrationality

The fight against Covid-19 is evolving globally as research laboratories and pharmaceutical companies race against time to find viable medication and vaccines. Until those emerge, social distancing and enhanced testing remain the most effective defences against this unique respiratory virus. Given that India’s poor health care infrastructure has prevented widespread testing, high population density underlines the criticality of social distancing. Of considerable concern, then, are the various non-scientific ideas about fighting Covid-19 that have gained traction over the past few weeks. From the supposed benefits of cow urine and cow-dung and sundry traditional medical cures to viral videos of Covid-19-banishing pujas, there is no shortage of purveyors of wholly unproven remedies.

In a country where low education levels combine with deep religiosity and superstition, this is a dangerous path to follow. Most of these notions have been advanced by Bharatiya Janata Party politicians of the same ilk as those who have theorised about ancient India’s nuclear weaponry and plastic surgery capabilities in the past. Their influence may not be pervasive but their statements — including the outright false claim that Prince Charles turned to Ayurveda to cure himself — are hardly helpful at a time when the virus is rampant and ignorance about it is high. The risks multiply when the issue acquires a religious hue. 

Consider, for instance, Tablighi Jamaat Markaz chief Maulana Saad’s alleged statement that social distancing is designed to prevent Muslims coming together is true — the validity of the tape is yet to be established — or the various self-styled “god men” that populate the airwaves expounding the virtues of yoga and meditation to fight the virus. Religious leaders should stick to religion, not stray into areas about which they know nothing. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken out on this, but himself seems to have used some astrological belief to enforce a nationwide electricity shutdown; this has encouraged those who make a living from the perennially booming business of superstition to offer their bogus explanations of the supposedly propitious aura that such activities generate — from invoking “sacred” sound to using the power of light and the auspicious number nine to attract the virus like a moth. The fact that so many Indians, including educated ones, proved credulous enough to participate in such placebo group activities may not be surprising. But it is certainly worrying when in many places, crowds came out on to the streets to wave candles and torches in blatant violation of safety norms. The prime ministerial advisory is all the more surprising since Mr Modi has a “corona task force” comprising the country’s leading health experts, scientists, and epidemiologists to advise him. Indeed, the Covid-19 crisis would have provided an opportune time to focus on the revival of the scientific temper that enhanced India’s global reputation in the 1950s and 1960s. Jawaharlal Nehru’s ideas may be out of fashion in today’s hard-nosed political environment but his focus on science remains valid, especially if India is to combat effectively the impact of the most deleterious virus of modern times.

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