When it was announced in late March that Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, was well on his way to recovering from COVID-19, there was some celebration 4,000 miles away in India, a former British colony. But it was not colonial nostalgia that brought on the cheer, so much as the declaration a few days later by an Indian government minister that the Prince of Wales had been cured using Ayurveda — a blend of, among other things, herbal medicine, breathing exercises, and meditation.
At an April 2 press conference, Shripad Naik, India’s minister for alternative medicines, declared that the treatment’s supposed success “validates our age-old practice.” The British government swiftly issued a statement rejecting his claim. “This information is incorrect. The Prince of Wales followed the medical advice of the National Health Service in the UK and nothing more,” a spokesperson said the following day.
But this hasn’t deterred Naik’s Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy — or AYUSH for short — from promoting Indian alternative medicines as treatments for COVID-19. Established in 2014, the goal of AYUSH is to develop and popularise these treatments, many of which have their historical roots in India. Ayurveda, for example, has been practiced in India for thousands of years.
Now, Naik said, the ministry aims to confirm that Prince Charles was cured using a combination of Ayurveda and the pseudoscience known as homeopathy, which has its roots in Germany, so that the treatment can be rolled out to the masses. This is in stark contrast to the position of mainstream medicine, which has not yet confirmed any evidence-based medicine for COVID-19, and is still highly cautious of giving experimental drugs to patients.
Many experts say that statements like Naik’s are false and dangerous, particularly now that the country is struggling to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, among its 1.35 billion people. With a lack of testing and a shortage of physicians, many experts feel the Indian government is failing its people by directing attention and resources to unsubstantiated and unscientific practices — especially when these practices themselves can be harmful.
And yet for many, the actions of the right-wing Indian government don’t come as a surprise. Aside from the popularity of alternative medicine in India generally, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is known for supporting Hindutva, a form of nationalism that seeks to transform India from being a secular nation into an openly Hindu one. This partly plays out in the field of health, where alternative therapies that have their roots in India, such as Ayurveda, are considered more “Hindu” or “Indian” than modern medicine. Supporting them becomes an opportunity to push forward this nationalist agenda.
In the early days of the epidemic, AYUSH heavily promoted therapies that lack an evidence base, said Sumaiya Shaikh, a neuroscientist based at the Center for Social and Affective Neuroscience at Linköping University Hospital in Sweden. Shaikh is also editor of science at Alt News, an Indian website that works to expose misinformation.
Examples of treatments pushed by AYUSH included a homeopathic medicine containing diluted arsenic, an Ayurvedic drug developed by the ministry to treat malaria, and dietary changes including drinking warm water, putting sesame oil inside the nose, or consuming holy basil, ginger, cloves, and turmeric. The ministry suggested these interventions could prevent people from developing COVID-19 as well as treat its symptoms.
“There was some amount of criticism to that,” said Shaikh. And so in response, the ministry provided a list of “scientific evidence” to bolster its claims. Aside from the fact that homeopathy has been repeatedly shown to have no biological effects, Shaikh said that when she and her team reviewed the list, the only actual research they could find was one analysis that examined the the same homeopathic treatment in bovines with gastric infections. Despite this, the ministry’s promotion of the therapy increased demand in many Indian states.
This isn’t the first time the ministry has faced criticism for promoting unscientific claims or backing research derived from religious myths and beliefs. One of its repeated focuses has been cow urine, which is believed by many Hindus to have healing properties given the sacred nature of cows in Hinduism. The urine has been touted as a treatment for many illnesses, including diabetes, epilepsy, and AIDS. Naik himself has made several comments in parliament about how cow urine can cure cancer. In reality, its use can be dangerous.
In fact, so widespread is the belief in cow urine that on March 17, an activist working for the BJP in Kolkata organised a “gomutra (cow urine) party” to ward off COVID-19. He believed that drinking the urine would protect them from the disease. Unfortunately, one of the volunteers fell seriously ill after ingesting the urine.
The Ministry of AYUSH’s research portal carries papers on the uses of panchagavya, the five products derived from a cow, of which urine is one, supporting its use as a medical product. However, Ipsita Mohanty, who co-wrote a paper listed there titled “Diversified Uses of Cow Urine,” said in an email that she couldn’t definitively answer whether cow urine fights off COVID-19, as “it has not been proven by independent researchers.”
This reflects how AYUSH researchers and doctors seek validation, explained Shaikh. “If a paper gets published anywhere — doesn’t matter what type of journal it is or how bad the statistics are — they take it as scientific proof,” she said, adding that the alternative medicine community also has a lot of journals of its own. These are regulated and edited by the same people who are published in them, Shaikh said.
Despite being an advocate of cow urine, Mohanty urges doctors to not spread misinformation. “It is misleading to spread the rumour about something so important when more than half of our world is engulfed by Covid-19,” she said. “There is no vaccine nor any treatment for it. At this point, promoting cow urine against Covid-19 can be very fatal, as people might resort to it for treatment as their only hope.”
The Ministry of AYUSH did not respond to requests for comments from Undark.
“Practitioners of such therapies get their clientele from two distinct groups,” said Aniket Sule, a science education researcher and astronomer at the Homi Bhabha Center for Science Education. He is part of a steadily growing rationalist movement in India that is encouraging dialogue and critical thinking to counter misinformation, including within the realm of alternative medicine.
The first group Sule identified is patients from impoverished communities and remote villages, “who don’t have access to doctors prescribing modern medicines.” The other set of clients is the “affluent and educated class in the cities, who have read half-baked internet posts and develop strong skepticism towards modern medicines,” he said.
“Pushing such a narrative to gullible masses is akin to actively spreading misinformation, and senior functionaries of government should take strict action against such baseless propaganda,” he urged.
The ministry has faced some institutional backlash. The Press Council of India, the statutory body responsible for maintaining good media standards, has issued an order asking print media to stop publicity and advertisements of AYUSH-related claims for COVID-19 treatments.
But despite that, the Ministry of AYUSH continues not only to receive political backing but also a large share of the annual health budget. From 2019 to 2020, the Indian government allotted approximately $250 million for study and promotion of alternative medicines, a 15 percent increase from the previous year. According to Shaikh, only the defence ministry saw a larger proportional increase to its budget last year.
Indian scientists fighting disinformation say there is an underlying nationalist agenda to this move. Certain radical groups affiliated with the government have dreams of spreading Hindu values beyond India’s borders to create an “Akhand Bharat,” or “consolidated Hindu nation,” which would include annexing a large part of the Indian subcontinent. One of these is Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a militant organisation that has a long history of promoting Hindutva. Its leader recently said that Ayurveda is part of India’s “soft power” in the South Asian region, said Shaikh.
Since coming to power in 2014, India’s current government (BJP) has increasingly backed divisive policies that consolidate the power of the majoritarian Hindu population. “Overall, this government has made virtue out of extreme and thoughtless nationalism. Increased support to all these questionable therapies is a natural byproduct of that,” Sule said, adding there is also a distinct motivation among many people who believe in these claims. “There are people who are so completely blinded by ‘glorious ancient India’ that they willingly walk into any trap if it is presented as ‘this is what our great ancestors did,’” he said.
Sule also thinks that AYUSH exists, in part, to protect commercial interests. There are nearly 800,000 practitioners of alternative medicine in India, he said, and over 650 colleges teaching related courses. The Ayurveda industry alone in India is worth $4.4 billion and is expected to grow by 16 percent in the next five years.
Shaikh, Sule and others have been critical of the Ministry of AYUSH for years, exposing and unmasking its questionable research and dubious medical advice. “It is very dangerous, especially now. We are the only country that has a parallel ministry for alternative systems,” Shaikh said. “Why not just have the one ministry and then have everything under it? Use whatever herbs you want, but run them through appropriate trials, and if they work then they should be in the mainstream and everybody should benefit from them,” she said.
Shaikh doesn’t call for closing the ministry but insists the way it works needs to change.
“Don’t start with a belief system, start with the hypothesis,” she advised. “Don’t start with the basis that this drug is going to work. Start with realising that ‘we don’t know and we want to find out.’ That is unbiased research.”