BANGALORE – As India’s tally of Covid-19 cases crosses 3.2 million and the country enters the seventh month of mobility restrictions, small but loud groups of Covid deniers and anti-maskers have emerged.
The Indian government mandates wearing masks at all times in public. But in a video a week ago, five young people called for a boycott of masks, calling them “symbols of slavery” that are useless to prevent coronavirus from entering the body. They then burned the masks.
This video got 617,000 views when shared by Mr Biswaroop Roy Chowdhury, a social media influencer with a talent for snappy Hindi videos and an evangelical mistrust of vaccines and antibiotics.
Twitter took the video down for violating its rules, but it is still up on his YouTube channel.
Everything about Mr Chowdhury proclaims that he is a doctor: his website, Twitter handle, Facebook account, YouTube channel with 22,100 subscribers and over 25 books. His staff arranging his interviews refer to him as “Dr Biswaroop”.
Mr Chowdhury, however, has no medical training. He has a PhD in diabetes, from Alliance International University, Zambia, which some education sites deem an online degree mill. His core business enterprise: camps across India, Malaysia and Vietnam to “cure diabetes” in 72 hours.
Since January, he has declared that Covid-19 is “similar to any other flu” and not very infectious. Calling it a pandemic is “propaganda to lock down the world”, he claimed.
A Facebook group called “The Covid 19 Conspiracy By Dr Biswaroop Roy Chowdhury” has 1,900 members. Its latest posts show him photographed with the Delhi chief minister and India’s health minister. Both politicians are holding his book about his “cure” for Covid-19.
Mr Chowdhury said that his “zero money, zero medicines and zero mortality” treatment, based on dietary changes has “cured over 80 per cent of 21,000 patients of Covid and influenza-like-illnesses”.
About 5,000 of these patients, he said, had contacted his office after testing positive for Covid, “to avoid quarantine and harassment by the police”.
“My office didn’t close for a single day for six months since the lockdown (imposed in India on March 24). My team of 50 people, me, even my child, interacted with hundreds of people with Covid. We didn’t wear masks. My antibody status is negative!” declared Mr Chowdhury on the phone from Faridabad, near Delhi.
He insisted that the over 820,000 Covid deaths worldwide were because world leaders inflated figures by counting “all flu deaths as Covid deaths”.
In the past few years, the online “doctor” has denied the existence of HIV/Aids, and claimed to treat cancer and diabetes with diet changes.
In 2015, the Delhi Medical Council’s Anti-Quackery Cell warned the Indian health ministry about Mr Chowdhury’s “illegal” claims about curing “an incurable disease.” Diabetes can be managed, they said, by eating healthy and exercising, but to call something a cure is misleading.
Despite his dubious credibility, there are enthusiastic takers for Mr Chowdhury’s views on Covid. A growing number of online posts and videos show Indians doubting the efficacy of masks, questioning vaccines and refusing to follow social distancing guidelines.
In one video, a young Hindi speaker burns his mask, calls the pandemic a Western conspiracy, and chants “Bharat Mata ki Jai!” (Hail Mother India). Twitter marks this video “spammy” but it’s available to watch from Mr Chowdhury’s account.
The Indian Council of Medical Research, which helms anti-Covid policies, has declared it “irresponsible” not to wear masks. Many states impose hefty fines on those not wearing masks in public.
Ms K Sujatha Rao, a former health secretary in the Indian government, said: “(For) a disease that is infectious and has no vaccine, a mask is the most potent barrier to protect oneself and others.”
Dr Jaleel Parkar, a chest physician who was part of the Covid task force in Mumbai, and himself recovered from Covid in June, said he had seen the disease as a doctor, a patient and as a spouse.
“We medical workers are tired of wearing masks and PPEs (personal protective equipment) for 8-10 hours a day. Yes, there are many unknowns about Covid treatment and immunity. But what can we do? We can’t let people die. We have to be responsible with what we know.”
Anti-maskers cite the World Health Organization’s changed guidelines about masks as proof of its incompetence.
In January, the WHO said, “widespread use of masks by healthy people in the community setting is not yet supported by high quality or direct scientific evidence.” In June, it advised governments to “encourage the general public to wear masks where there is widespread transmission and physical distancing is difficult.”
Dr Anant Bhan, a physician and researcher in bioethics and global health, said, “It’s to WHO’s credit that it is updating recommendations as new evidence comes up. Quacks like Biswaroop Roy Chowdhury are exploiting this to amplify confusions.”
Mr Chowdhury also opposes vaccines. In a video centred on the world’s wait for a Covid-19 vaccine, he mentions the use of fetal bovine serum to administer many vaccines. Using graphic visuals of unborn and bloody calf fetuses, he estimates alarmingly that 24 billion calves would be killed every year for the Covid-19 vaccine.
Experts say that while some vaccines do use fetal bovine serums, there is no evidence yet for their use in Covid vaccines, and to the extent Mr Chowdhury claims.
At the end of the vaccine video, Mr Chowdhury chants “Jai Shri Ram!”, an inciting cry of Hindu fundamentalists and vigilantes who have attacked Indians who eat beef or work in leather industries, in the name of protecting cows.
Denying any political affiliations, Mr Chowdhury said he used the controversial chant because it was “the in thing.” He was referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent inauguration of a Ram temple in Ayodhya on the site of a mosque demolished in 1991 by Hindu mobs.
Mr Chowdhury further claimed: “The coronavirus is mutating so fast that by the time there is a vaccine, it will be useless and harmful,” he said. Scientists were producing vaccines “for commercial profit”.
Mr Peter Thielen, a molecular biologist with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, who is studying the pathogen’s genetic code, told The New York Times that the coronavirus is mutating, but only one “strain” exists. It’s the same virus infecting people all over the world now, and a vaccine could offer lasting protection.
“The government should regulate against people spreading misinformation during a public health crisis,” said Dr Bhan.
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