When actor-model Poonam Pandey’s team declared her “dead” due to cervical cancer on Friday, February 2, it was a confusing time for netizens. How should one react to a celebrity’s death? Ideally, with a tinge of sadness and a few words of respect. But in Poonam’s case, many people just couldn’t shake off this nagging feeling that there was something wrong with this sudden ‘death’.
And a day later, proving everyone’s suspicions true, Poonam appeared in a video on Instagram, claiming she was alive and was just “spreading awareness” on cervical cancer. The PR stunt comes a day after Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the government's plans to focus on vaccination against cervical cancer for girls aged 9 to 14, as part of her Interim Budget 2024.
As many of her fans and critics were quick to point out, Poonam’s act was a publicity stunt in very bad taste, one that has now destroyed her credibility overnight. Cancer is universally accepted as one of the worst afflictions to affect the human body and society in general, with lakhs of Indians succumbing to the deadly illness every year. Using “death by cancer” as a publicity stunt blatantly trivialises this terminal disease, diminishing its consequences and the extent of suffering it wreaks.
Let’s also not forget how triggering such an act can be to the many cancer survivors in India, those who are still battling the disease and their caregivers, who do not have the luxury of the public banding together in their support. It can also be distressing to the many people who have lost their dear and near ones to this illness, several of whom would give an arm and a leg for their loved one to appear a day later and tell them ‘they aren’t really dead.’
What's more, while claiming to promote the HPV vaccine to protect girls and women from cervical cancer, Poonam’s act instead serves to reduce it to a mere prop in a publicity stunt. Many young girls and women had taken to the internet to declare that they were about to take the HPV vaccine after Poonam’s ‘death’, but the subsequent announcement comes as such a betrayal that there might be people who no longer want to be associated with the cause.
This is what the statement on Poonam’s Instagram page said on February 2: “This morning is a tough one for us. Deeply saddened to inform you that we have lost our beloved Poonam to cervical cancer. Every living form that ever came in contact with her was met with pure love and kindness. In this time of grief, we would request for privacy while we remember her fondly for all that we shared.”
Just four days before that, Poonam had shared an Instagram post in which she appeared to be in the prime of her health, which had also led to questions among a worried section of people who wondered if cervical cancer can kill a person this quickly. It may be noted that there is little scientific data to back such an assumption, and the stunt had essentially led to the spread of misinformation and blatant scaremongering.
In the end, very few people other than Poonam Pandey herself — who found herself some extended fame through notoriety — seem to have benefited from this “cancer awareness campaign.”
Poonam, an actor and fashion model, had first become the eye of a controversy after she announced that she would strip herself naked if the Indian cricket team won the 2011 World Cup. There was public disapproval directed towards her at the time. She later debuted in Bollywood in the 2013 film Nasha and went on to appear in many more movies and reality shows, and her newly-built notoriety may now land her in a few more.
But that said, it’s important to not allow a PR stunt to take attention away from the danger of cervical cancer, the second most common type of cancer diagnosed among women in India. Cervical cancer is caused by certain types of Human Papillomavirus (HPV), a common virus that is usually sexually transmitted. The disease is preventable through HPV vaccines, and is also effectively curable if detected early. If you're not vaccinated yet, get your HPV vaccines as soon as possible.
Views expressed are the author's own.