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Fighting junk science in COVID-ravaged India

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“Cow dung can save you from getting COVID-19.” “Eating raw onions with sea salt is a surefire COVID cure.” And “5-G telephone signals are helping to spread the deadly coronavirus across India.” 

These are just a few of the dozens of bizarre theories rampantly spreading on Indian social media. All countries seem to have their fair share of COVID-19 junk science, or “COVID Quack” as some commentators have labeled it. The U.S. is hardly immune to such misinformation, but preposterous theories seem to crop up more frequently and spread faster in India than most places.

A London-based investigative journalism nonprofit recently identified more than 150 examples of COVID-19 misinformation posted on Indian Facebook pages in April and May; they had an audience of more than 100 million people. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found more than 60 examples of COVID-19 misinformation shared on Indian Twitter accounts, too, reaching more than 3.5 million followers.

Some of the quackery is almost comical. There was the Indian guru who told his rapt audience: “If you take steam, there is no way you will get COVID.” Other medical amateurs swear that putting drops of mustard oil or lemon juice in the nose can stop the virus. The Modi government has been pushing back against fabrications and fables.

Why? There’s nothing funny about providing false hope in a country that has been so devastated by the pandemic — and as the deadly Delta variant has spread around the globe. About 1 in 45 Indian residents have been infected with the virus since the outbreak began, the New York Times reports, and 400,000 Indians have died. Meanwhile, less than 5 percent of the Indian population has been fully vaccinated.

This is why the American India Foundation (AIF) is extending a lifeline to India. With funds raised by concerned Americans with deep Indian roots, it has just launched an ambitious program to help get shots into the arms of 1 million of the most vulnerable Indian citizens — people with disabilities, street vendors and migrant workers, sex workers, impoverished women laborers, and tribal groups. These communities frequently suffer from a lack of awareness about the urgent need to get vaccinated, and often buy into the myths and negative attitudes about these lifesaving vaccines. Often without strong digital literacy, these neglected groups typically lack access to the internet, too.

But mitigating misinformation is the first step. AIF is launching a $1.5 million awareness and behavioral-change campaign in India, in three native languages, to dispel rumors and provide accurate COVID-19 information. Ads will run on TV, radio, in newspapers and on the web, and billboards and posters will repeat the messaging in rural villages. An army of credible messengers will target local influencers including religious leaders, faith healers and hospital administrators to continue dispelling vaccination myths door-to-door at a micro level.

The campaign will support and complement the government’s efforts to stamp out COVID-19 misinformation on the @MyGovIndia Twitter feed, official Indian government websites, and via the #MyGovMythBusters hashtag. In several recent MythBusters posts, the government warned citizens that pneumonia vaccines do not prevent COVID-19, that smokers and vegetarians are not less prone to infection, and that wearing face masks does not lead to “oxygen deficiency.” Prime Minister Modi himself has urged people to fight false vaccine rumors. 

Despite all these measures, wishful thinking persists. In western India, some deeply religious men have been covering their bodies in cow dung and urine in the mistaken belief that it will boost their immunity against COVID-19 or help them recover from the potentially deadly disease. COVID-19 misinformation apparently is a disease, too, one that we need to fight just as aggressively.

Nishant Pandey is CEO of the American India Foundation, a private, nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that aims to help create an India free from poverty.

Tags COVID-19 misinformation Fake News India Narendra Modi Pandemic

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