Why the push for AYUSH is harmful: Narendra Nayak interview

Noted rationalist Narendra Nayak speaks to TNM about why non-evidenced-based AYUSH therapies are detrimental in the midst of a raging pandemic.
Rationalist Narendra Nayak
Rationalist Narendra Nayak

We’re in the midst of the worst health crisis the country has ever faced. Lakhs of people are dying of COVID-19, with thousands and thousands of people every day struggling to find oxygen and hospital beds across the country. There is a definite undercounting of deaths for various reasons across states. And while the pandemic itself is killing people, the strain on the healthcare system means that people who have other health issues are also finding it difficult to get medical help.

Amidst all this, the Union government and several state governments, which have come under severe criticism for their handling of the pandemic, have been pushing AYUSH — Ayurveda, Yoga, Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, Sowa-Rigpa and Homoeopathy — as prevention for COVID-19, and in some cases, even as a cure. From immunity boosters like Kabasura Kudineer, to ‘lemon therapy’ to increase oxygen levels, a lot of pseudoscience, bad science, and non-evidence-based therapies are being peddled, and being given importance since the government itself is pushing for AYUSH. We spoke to rationalist Narendra Nayak — who is a biochemist by profession — on why the push for AYUSH is harmful at such a critical time. Excerpts below: 

We’re in the midst of a health disaster and the government has come under serious criticism for its handling of the pandemic. But in the middle of all this, we’ve seen the government’s push for AYUSH continuing. What are your thoughts on this?

This is not new, we have to remember that they did this in the first wave also. They are just being ‘clever’ by finding opportunities to push their agenda in the middle of a disaster. They have tried to sell their sugar pills and Kabasura Kudineer and chyawanprash during the first wave as well. 

We have to note that the AYUSH Ministry protocol for practitioners includes prevention, cure and recovery — and all of them have the same junk. The same sugar pills, the same gooseberry preserve (chyawanprash), some junk powders, breathing exercises etc. This is how they take people for a ride. In fact, even the otherwise rational government of Kerala was also dispensing these sugar pills at one point. 

Everybody is trying to get their pound of flesh in this pandemic — including some famous yoga practitioners and spiritualists. And they’ve got an exalted position now, by virtue of the Hindutva stand of the government. In fact, Vijay Sankeshwar (former MP and BJP leader) peddled ‘lemon therapy’ — or inhaling lemon juice, and one person has allegedly died because of following this advice. 

There is bad science, there is non-science. There is nonsense! There is pseudoscience. All of these things are combined now. 

We have the government and AYUSH on one hand — and on the other, we have Baba Ramdev and the likes selling Coronil, and mocking the oxygen shortage in the country…

They’re all a part of AYUSH. All the quackeries have been put together under one ministry. The ministry brings out all these guidelines. However, when the AYUSH minister falls sick, he goes and gets admitted to a medical hospital. He doesn’t go to a Naturopathy farm. The Prime Minister himself takes the vaccine, despite doing yoga and everything else. 

Even a top Ayurveda practitioner in the country, PR Krishna Kumar, died of COVID-19 in September 2020. (Krishna Kumar was consulted by the Prime Minister for the AYUSH protocol in the country in light of the pandemic, and when he contracted COVID-19, he was admitted to a private hospital.) I don’t know if people are refusing the see the irony here. Covi

When a lot of ‘alternative remedies’ are countered within families, in WhatsApp groups etc, the retort is — but what’s the harm in trying XYZ? How does one reply to this?

This is a very important point. Around 10 years ago, there was chikungunya endemic in Karnataka. Before that, even I’ve thought, ok, what is the big deal if someone takes some sugar pills…

But during this endemic, I went on to some village areas nearby, and had meetings with people. One of them asked me: “When chikungunya was going around here, they were dispensing homoeopathic medicines. Some of us went, but we couldn’t get the medicines. Some others got the medicines. What we saw was that many of the people who took the medicines, ended up getting chikungunya, but most of us who did not take the medicine didn’t get it.” I was shocked. How could a virus that is transmitted through a vector go into a sugar pill? 

Then, on further enquiries, I found that those who had not received these sugar pills were observing all precautions. They were wearing full-sleeved shirts, eating under a mosquito net during the day time etc. But those who got the sugar pills believed they were immune, so they were wandering around everywhere happily without observing any precautions. This is an example of how these things can be dangerous. 

How much of the worsening pandemic would you attribute to a culture of non-science in India? 

You have a man at the top who has a broad spectrum of things to hang on to. Whatever he says is believed to be the ultimate truth — like the banging of pots and pans and lighting of diyas. His chelas and gurus — like Jaggi and double mister (Sri Sri) and others — defend everything that he and his Cabinet do. They defend whatever comes with this so-called “superior Indian culture”. Even with this 2-Deoxy-D-glucose, they are making it look like the molecule itself was discovered in India. We’re desperate to show our superiority in one way or another. They had a picture of Hanuman carrying Sanjeevani and manipulated this to make it look like the structure of Hydroxychloroquine… We want to make everything look like it was a part of our ancient tradition. 

Otherwise, would something like a Kumbh Mela happen in the country at this time? Or the West Bengal election? Superspreader events? All these things are a part of a package. They don’t come individually. They’re a package that are rolled along with things that work, like vaccines. They’ve cleverly rolled into each other. Vaccines and evidence-based treatment for the top people, and junk for the poor people. Why did they (the top people) not drink gomutra when they came down with COVID-19? These questions, unless people start asking, there won’t be change.

We can change only through proper education. We have to follow Article 51A(h) of the Indian Constitution: to develop scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.

This interview was first published in 'Here's the thing', an exclusive newsletter for TNM Members.

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