By Rajan Raj in Jharkhand
In April, my mother Anju Devi received a WhatsApp “forward” saying that there was a cure for coronavirus in the ancient Hindu epic Ramayana. The message said that while reading a couplet from Baal Kaand, the first volume of Valmiki Ramayana, some devotees had found hair which could cure the disease.
“Forwards” with such misinformation have been spreading at an alarming rate in Indian states like Jharkhand which may have led to an increase in the book sales of Ramayana.
I warned my mother to be wary of such rumours and told her to turn to time-tested scientific methods for a solution.
Unfortunately, there is almost nothing new about this phenomenon. India is not new to a little superstition, especially during an epidemic. For example, chickenpox is referred to as Sheetla maiya, an incarnation of Goddess Durga, and is prayed to. It was the same with smallpox before the disease was eradicated.
Under extraordinary circumstances like the present one, superstitions can and have caused irreversible damage. Worrying stories are being reported from different parts of the country. The novel coronavirus, too, has taken the form of a maiya (or mother) and pictures and videos have emerged from the city of Kolkata to the Indo-Nepal border showing people worshipping “corona mata”(also a word for mother) for mercy. And everyone has developed their rituals.
Let’s Start from the Beginning
Why do we have a large portion of our population vulnerable to superstitions? Perhaps because the government is almost absent in many rural areas; there are no functional dispensaries or hospitals.
About 70 percent of India’s population – or, more than 700 million people – lives in rural areas with little access to health care. According to 2017 figures, 84 percent of the 23,582 government hospitals were in rural areas, but they had less than 40 percent of total government beds, according to a paper published by University of Pennsylvania in the United States. From 2000 to 2015, India’s total national healthcare expenditure averaged around 4 percent of GDP each year, but the government expenditures comprised around 1 percent of GDP, the same study noted.
These figures are based on what the Indian government says on paper; the situation on the ground could be far worse. According to a “white paper” on rural health care, released by a group, Gram Vaani, 66 percent of people in rural areas do not have access to critical medicines.
If people are left to care for themselves, even when they have to fight a disease, they are likely to resort to non-scientific methods.
In any case, in a responsible democracy, it is the government’s job to encourage people to develop a scientific temperament towards diseases. And to actively combat the spread of superstition during a pandemic should be the first thing on the agenda. But, some members of the Bharatiya Janata Party government have decided to mix things up a bit.
Ramdas Athawale, the Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment, is popular for making controversial statements. Keeping that tradition alive, he chanted “Go Corona Go” during a prayer meeting on Feb. 20. A video of the incident went viral and, unfortunately, many others followed his lead.
In a village in Bihar, people heard that “corona mata” appeared in the form of a cow and told two women how to treat the virus. This spread like wildfire from Bihar to Bengal to Jharkhand and other surrounding states. In their desperation, people created rituals to stop the spread of the infection. The rituals had nothing to do with wearing masks or maintaining hygiene. It was, for some reason, about the number nine. Soon, women in the rural parts of the country started offering nine cloves, nine camphor balls, nine incense sticks and nine laddus to “corona mata.”
Some Superstitions Can be Deadly
It’s silly, but some rituals were also harmful. Some of these practices have resulted in fatalities, too. For example, a priest in the city of Cuttack in Odisha state offered a man as a human sacrifice to please “corona mata.” He told the police that God had ordered him to do so in a dream. In Jharkhand’s Koderma district, people killed 400 goats and chickens for the same reason. Another one came from Madhya Pradesh state’s Ratlam district. Self-styled godman Aslam Baba reportedly kissed people’s hands as a treatment for the coronavirus. On June 3, he tested positive and died a day later. He ended up infecting 23 people and about 150 others were contact-traced and put in quarantine.
Some rumours needed a bigger push. So in Jharkhand’s Palamu district, the prime minister’s name was roped in. A rumour had it that the prime minister would give a reward of 1,000 rupees to all those who observed a fast to please “corona mata.” The money, they said, would be credited to their bank accounts. This led 20-25 women to observe the fast. A woman named Vaijyanti Devi died of starvation.
These rumours don’t target any particular religion or community. They are spread faster and more efficiently and their propaganda machine is more organised than those disseminating legitimate information. The fact that so many people have already lost their lives and loved ones indicates how weak and prone to failure the system is.
How does something like this happen in the 21st century?
Unfortunately, we don’t need to dig too deep to answer that question, especially when it comes to politics or religion. We have seen how rumours about child theft or cow slaughter recently led to multiple incidents of lynching and other kinds of violence in the country. The difference is that the motives behind misinformation about the coronavirus are still unclear. What is clear, however, is how we got here.
For one, when there is no culture of verifying the information that comes on WhatsApp, a certain amount of damage is just waiting to happen. In the specific case of the coronavirus, the Indian government and even the scientific community have badly failed in promoting responsible practices at a time of crisis. The government also failed to find a way to control rumour-mongering, which some political, at times, use as a weapon against religious minorities.
Meanwhile, an overwhelmed healthcare system is pushing some people towards quacks and their “herbal remedies.” The lack of a vaccine is also chipping away at their faith towards modern medicine’s ability to solve the problem.
After three months of the nationwide lockdown, which failed to “flatten the curve,” the country is now beginning to open up, and its people are staring at the real possibility of things getting worse. But we have to trust that the scientific community will save the day.
Meanwhile, we owe it to ourselves to stay aware, informed and responsible.