How misinformation is making India’s fight more difficult against Covid-19

Years ago, I read in a local newspaper that light from the full moon is special and that kheer left out in full moon’s light will have, as a result, proteins that enhance the health of those that consume it. You don’t even have to have heard the word ‘pseudoscience’ to see its neon lights flashing all around this one. Fact: Light cannot make proteins, only living cells can.

India’s battle with misinformation is not new. Since the beginning of this year, it certainly is more ‘in our face’.

** Consuming cow urine to prevent COVID infection has put several in the hospital.

** Untested claims abound on herbal supplements & everyday items in Indian kitchens as cures for, or preventions against, COVID. Sometimes the same item is touted as both.

There’s lot of money to be made in pushing untested claims, none in proving them false.

Reasons to believe in misinformation vary vastly. It can be strangely comforting to “pin the blame” on someone/something else. It has taken the form of blaming those who “look chinese”; never mind that people who were ill-treated on these grounds were Indians. Fear can make people behave in irrational ways. That meant that healthcare workers, and airline staff, who were doing their jobs, got blamed for spreading the disease. Whatever may be the reasons for people to buy into the misinformation that anyone’s jobs or looks have any connection to COVID, such beliefs have detrimental consequences.

A plethora of “cures” for COVID abound, compounded by confusion that surrounds “immunity” and what it means to boost immunity. This has been perhaps the biggest threat during the pandemic. One, because it exposes people to additional health risks that could otherwise have saved them trip to the hospital during the pandemic (the very thing, I am guessing, they were trying to avoid). Two, there’s no evidence that many of these food items boost immunity (proponents cannot answer how that was tested), no evidence that “immune boosting” is what you need to prevent a viral infection. We do know however, that drugs that reduce immune response are effective in COVID treatment.

There could be any number of reasons that so many get caught up in the frenzy. Prominent among them, I think, is a tendency to not ask questions, before people share/retweet/forward – and this tendency is very costly. It turns people who may be otherwise well meaning individuals, into unwittingly peddling misinformation.

Before we talk about why ask questions, and what forms that can take, let’s spare a thought to what happens when questions aren’t asked.

What happens when journalists don’t ask questions?
A contraption called Shycocan that claims to fire hypercharged electrons at viral particles in the air, rendering them ineffective, has been making headlines. Social media applauded this, every major media outlet has reported it. Not one of these seemed to ask: what is a hypercharged electron? How is it different than “normal electrons”? And let’s not forget, if this device can really inactivate proteins, then what happens to people in the vicinity of this device? We are made of proteins – skin, hair, nails- everything is protein. How can an inanimate device tell the difference between viral and human protein? About a month after the news first broke, Indian Express did report on concerns raised by many scientists on this device, but by then Eureka Forbes was already marketing it: 20 grand a piece!

This is but one example of glaring omission.

What happens when the public don’t ask questions?

In short, fake news and misinformation go viral.

I invite you to take this challenge: Spot the evidence in WhatsApp forwards. Messages for cures or prevention of COVID hardly ever include proof.

If you find yourself believing in them anyway, ask yourself why. More often than not, it is because the message jibes with what you think — preconceived ideas/biases you already have. This is the fertile ground that fake news thrives on: “how can this be false…this is exactly what I think”.

Now that you’ve heard me bemoan the general lack of questioning, I think it is only fair that we talk about the one question that does get asked, especially in context of herbal supplements etc: “What’s the harm?”. I do hope that everyone who ask this, spare a moment and follow through. Because if you do, I bet you’ll find that more often than not, there IS harm! In the last few months, there have been regular news reports of health complications from taking too much of vitamin or herbal supplements.

A term frequently tossed around on Ayurveda products and herbal supplements is “natural”. Just because something is natural does not mean it’s good for you. Arsenic is natural, as is death.

Don’t be another link in the chain spreading misinformation. Educate yourself. Ask questions, no matter who the claim is from – family WhatsApp group or Ministry of Ayush.

The Indian Scientists’ Response to COVID-19 (ISRC) maintains a dedicated email where anyone can share a claim they’ve come across and we check whether there’s any truth to it: [email protected]

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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