Pseudoscience – covid-related disinformation. In the wake of the covid pandemic, Indian social media was flooded with messages spreading unscientific information to prevent COVID. Some of these messages diverted and obstructed the attempts of medical professionals to combat COVID effectively. This case primarily explores this misinformation, looking for patterns while at the same time being respectful of alternate ways of knowing that are different from western science.
The cow is considered a holy animal in some Hindu texts. Several attacks on Dalits and Muslims in India have accused them of killing and consuming cow meat. To legitimise the political usage of the sacredness of cows, there is a series of misinformation and disinformation in India, such as cow urine having cancer-curing properties, healing properties etc. There is also a market for cow urine, and cow urine is a marketed product by several businesses. The disinformation that cow urine cures COVID-19 is part of a series of pseudo-scientifical and superstitious misinformation and disinformation that have been spreading in India over time over some time. In remote and rural India, where hospitals are rare and public health systems are miserable, the misinformation that cow urine can cure COVID-19 effectively hid the government’s unpreparedness to give basic infrastructure for COVID treatments.
The actors, in this case, are mainly elected representatives of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Most of the reports available in the public domain are reports on clips where these leaders can be seen spreading misinformation. However, without the original videos, one can not determine the engagement of non-electoral representatives and other actors. The communications are open, and the identity of the actors are also revealed.
Screenshot of a deleted tweet captioned as a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) worker helping a COVID patient. The video of the link was widely circulating on social media even after the tweet was deleted. The tweet was shared by the General Secretary of BJP, Surat. (Image credit: ABP News Bureau)
A screenshot of the viral video where a BJP MP Pragya Thakur is seen to be saying she does not get COVID because she drinks cow urine every day. Several news agencies, including ND TV, criticised these statements; however, the video was reportedly viral.
The screenshot is taken from Asia News International’s Twitter page that shared a self-made video of BJP Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) explaining how to drink Patanjali cow urine. In the video, he is requesting people to mix 50 ML of Patanjali cow urine with cold water to achieve natural immunity. Source: ANI News, Twitter.
In a news reported by Times Now, another BJP leader from Uttar Pradesh Meerut is seen carrying the smoke of burnt cow dung to ward away Covid.
All India Hindu Mahasabha has also hosted a Cow Urine Party on Match 2020 to ward off Corona Virus. A video of this party had also gone viral, however the original video was not found online.
This journal article published in 2010 also claims that cow urine can cure cancer.
However, several scientific studies in peer-reviewed publications have argued that drinking cow urine or consuming cow dung will result in significant health risks.
The content carries severe harm to the public health of the individuals. Cow urine party and other cow dung gatherings based on the misinformation that cow urine and cow dung cure Corona violate WHO mandates on social distancing and wearing a mask. Thus, it threatened public health, where people ignored scientifically backed guidelines and mandates. It also puts people at risk of getting infected by the infections a cow may have.
The audience of such news is the rural and remote population with no access to facts and knowledge except by listening to the elected representatives. It is also part of an ongoing campaign to legitimise the unnecessary importance given to the cows in creating communal tension. It is also connected with various legislations that the BJP government is implementing to prevent cow slaughter and the increasing mob violence against several communities, including Dalits and Muslims for whom the cow has no sacred value. This is certainly now a one-off operation, part of an ongoing campaign.
The misinformation on Covid prevented several uneducated and rural individuals from accessing and following the correct information and scientific guidelines. Even though there are no studies on the causality of misinformation on the increase in COVID cases, the nation dealt with a substantial public health crisis in the second wave. Indirectly, the elected representatives of the part with the national majority also escaped accountability for public health by diverting attention to pseudo-science practices.
Diagnosis and critical voices
Several NGOs, mainstream newspapers and grassroots volunteers worked on debunking many misinformation during COVID. However, the fact that the elected representatives themselves encouraged cow urine highly impacted a set population who blindly believed them. Most of the criticisms were published in English news channels, limiting engagements with rural and unlettered people. The coordinated effect to further fund the research on the ‘healing power’ of cow urine and the research publications before the pandemic suggests that it is part of a more extensive influence operation.