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The price of pseudo-science

In spring of 2020, as the deadly corona virus SAR-COV2 devastated populations in countries with some of the best public health care systems in the world, some Europeans wondered in shock whether it was an inherent flaw in their democratic system that prevented containment of the pandemic, since non-democratic China had already largely tamed it. As spring has turned into summer, both China and Europe have emerged from the worst days. Now, as of 26/6/2020, USA, India and Brazil, along with Russia, are the countries with largest numbers of infected populations.

So what is common to China and Europe that is lacking in the American, Indian and Brazilian approach? In the USA, Some have put the blame squarely on authoritarianism. But so is China authoritarian. True, the secretiveness of China and its crackdown on whistle-blowers early-on very likely led to the initial epidemic spread, but China did finally contain the disease and continues to manage it. Here I would argue that in addition to authoritarianism, the negative attitude to science has also contributed strongly to the current state of affairs in the trio of USA, India and Brazil.

 Nick Anderson’s The Trump Cult cartoon. Photograph: Nick Anderson

Cow urine, bleach and cocaine have all been recommended as COVID-19 cures” says an article in the prestigious scientific journal Nature, while discussing COVID-19 and pseudo-science. The last one was a one-off Facebook post that seems to have now been taken down but the first two have (or had) the backing of the head of the world’s largest and oldest democracies respectively.

The same two countries are responsible for the two best known flop-cures for COVID-19. The first is of course hydroxychloroquin (hcq). The French doctor Didier Raoult was one of the first to push for hcq as a COVID-19 cure., based on his own faulty data and analysis. Trump picked up this preliminary, incomplete and controversial study and made it even more controversial by hinting that people self-medicate, leading to at least one tragic death. Trump also pushed (read bullied) Modi to lift an embargo on exports in order to supply his own country with the soon-to-be discarded hcq.

The twists and turns in the story of hcq – which saw first the halt of its use, then the withdrawal of article that led to the said halt, and finally a new study that lead to a new halt – nicely demonstrates how science based medicine works, with all its faults and merits. The fault is that weakness or fraud is not always detected at the outset, the merit is that when newer and better studies become available, old faulty advice is tossed out.

So the prophet of hcq, Prof. Raoult, is indeed a real professor and a doctor: a well-known virologist in fact, who is credited with having made salient discoveries like the existence of the giant ‘mimi’ virus. While his reputation is indeed tarnished, he has not been charged with any wrong doing – his work was shoddy but not criminal. It is otherwise with the prophet of the new Ayurvedic cure ‘coronil’. Coronil was aggressively advertised in Indian media by Ram Kisan Yadav of Patanjali Ayurved Ltd, better known by his pseudonym Baba Ramdev. He pretended to a 100% cure of COVID-19. The fraud was soon detected and flagged by multiple groups, leading to an order by the government AYUSH department to stop selling and advertising the medicine immediately. The intricacies of the multiple lies that surrounded this claim was nicely summarized by altnews.

Though ‘Coronil’ is the most known of the pseudo-cures offered, it is not the only one, neither the first or the last in India, as nicely documented by Sameen Zunaira.

It can be argued that some western governments, in paying for homeopathy and traditional medicines via public health systems also cater to pseudo cures. On COVID-19 pandemic however, they have mostly tried to follow the emerging science. The newness of the disease meant that scientists and therefore policy makers frequently were guessing and improvising – leading to contradictory measures, for example compare the Swedish and the German approaches. Indeed, every country balanced economy with health, putting varying degree of important on each.

Almost every government has been criticized for their handling of the pandemic. In Europe, there has been complains – for example in France, from the banlieues of Paris about police excesses and from trade unions for working conditions and workers rights; and in Germany from the far-right and financial interests. However, overall, the strategy was of solidarity and taking logical precautions, while listening to experts.

In terms of NOT listening to experts, there are few who went as far as Modi and his two high profile political guests for 2020. Jair Bolsanaro, the far right president of Brazil and Modi’s chief guest at the 26th Januaryparades, claimed that COVID-19 was a media trick. Lately, he has resorted to data manipulation – a judge had to order him to resume publishing COVID data. Amid catastrophic devastation for its indigenous people, and repression and pseudoscience all round, Brazil sees faint rays of hope in its still-largely-independent judiciary, its federal structure and its opposition parties uniting to restore democracy.

Trump famously attended Modi organized mega events as the pandemic was already beginning to stalk the two nations.  Since then, Trump has constantly feuded with his scientific advisor Dr. Fauci – contradicting him in April as the cases multiplied, and then threatening to sack him. CNN faulted Trump for being anti-science. The disagreements continue into june but Trump has not sacked Fauci perhaps due to the latter’s popularity. Meanwhile, Trump is helped in his war on facts by an ultra-right ecosystem who constantly amplify and add to his fake narrative. Like Brazil, USA is partly protected from the excesses of its president by its independent judicially, its federal system and its vocal opposition.

Modi’s anti or psudo-science has deeper roots than those of Trump. Trump in fact opportunistically piggy-backed on the extreme right agenda and his brand of opposition to science, though ably seconded by anti-vaxxers and such likes, is uniquely his own. Modi, on the other hand, draws on the years spent by RSS in patiently building an unscientific or even anti-scientific narrative whereby tradition and mythology is help up as directly opposed to science. Interestingly, in Dr. Harsh Vardhan, India currently has a Minister for health who should have been fully competent to handle the pandemic. Harsh Vardhan, who has been credited with rolling out India’s highly successful anti-polio program, has however been missing in COVID-19 action. During the draconian lockdown, health briefings came not from the cabinet minister who is also a qualified doctor, but from secretory level or other administrative staff. They presented misleading and incomplete information, denying ‘community transmission’ till their last bulletin. The now infamous graph  ‘predicting’ zero cases by mid May is of course the most famous piece of skullduggery. Experts from ICMR had been replaced since long by bureaucrats

The controvertial graph

Even these bulleting have petered out now. Transparent and reliable data is of course at the heart of science. Like many things, their availability has varied across states. A data table doing rounds in Twitter shows that UP is the biggest culprit in terms of data transparency.

The state that shines as an example to emulate is of course kerala. Its health minister took the preemptive step of constituting an action committee already in January, which included experts. Sailaja-teacher, as she is affectionately called, then followed the evolving recommendations of the scientific community, earning her international repute and an invitation to discuss her successful strategy with the UN.

As discussed recently in our portal, pseudo-science cannot cure COVID-19 or anything else – it cannot be a substitute for the real thing. While traditional medicines indeed have thousands of years of human wisdom buried in them, as perhaps exemplified by the 2015 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine given to Dr. Tu YouYou, her work also underlines the fact that traditional medicines are rightly judged by the same standard as all the rest – proof of efficacy.

There is only one way to keep COVID-19 at bay and to find a cure – follow the science and take rational steps. That would mean constituting an action force that includes experts, that would mean collecting and publishing data, that would mean investing wisely in equipment and protection kits. That would also mean proper dialogue between doctors, scientists and authorities, putting doctors and scientists at heart of decision making, providing proper protection to healthcare and sanitation workers. That would mean immediate and effective crack-down on quack cures and proper administration of vaccines and medicines if and when they become available.

Winning against COVID-19 is possible – Kerala is not the richest state but it is winning, Korea is not the biggest country but it did it, Vietnam is not rich but it managed too, Cuba is under severe economic embargo but it did not only tackle the virus, but even send its famous healthcare professionals around the world to help. The graphs below illustrate the difference between the trio refusing to follow the science or  take rational concerted national level action, and the three that did just that. In the first group, the daily confirmed cases, adjusted for population differences, is dramatically increasing, with currently about 100 new cases per day per million people in Brazil and USA and about 10 for India. More worryingly, the rate of infections is increasing as indicated by the upward slope of all three curves. One the other hand, the number has been falling for a while in Cuba – now a bit less than 1, stable in South Korea at 1 after a small second wave, and hovering for a while around a cheering 0.01 for Vietnam.

We are paying a very high price in human life by not taking a scientific approach, and letting pseudo-science proliferate. We can choose to follow the Kerela model or the Korean model or any other model. It just needs to be based on science with a dose of compassion and solidarity. We’ll truly beat Corona when that happens.

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