A couple of months ago, US based medical researcher Dr. Faheem Younus tweeted on the spread of black fungus in India. “Use of cow dung as a ‘COVID Cure’ could be causing deadly black fungus disease (mucormycosis) in India,” he said, before adding, “I can’t prove it but it’s highly likely.” A scientist at the University of Maryland, Dr. Younus is a prominent voice that people everywhere have come to trust on issues related to the pandemic. Indeed, a few months later, when an Indian journalist scored an interview with this expert, her channel introduced Dr. Younus fondly as “World’s Covid Guru.”
While it is always encouraging to see scientists engage with the public, the tweet also exposes a disturbing reality. The targeting of Indians, particularly Hindus, by means of cultural prejudices is now mainstream. As Dr. Younus might have said, I can’t prove this, but it’s highly likely. OPINION: Uniform Civil Code – A Ray Of Hope For Indian Muslim Women
Could a reasonable individual, a scientist, be led to believe that vast numbers of Indians are covering themselves with cow dung in hope of curing Covid? Yes, because that is what the media has been saying all around the world. Since the pandemic began, the global media has tried to project Indians as embracing a number of unscientific ‘medical’ practices, particularly related to the cow. The Western fascination with (and contempt for) the special place of the cow in Indian society is an old one. And this was as good a time as any other to feast on those prejudices. The messaging was clear. Indians (read Hindus) are an unscientific people. They are superstitious and they live in the dark ages.
There is no doubt that such coverage got an additional boost due to the liberal media’s partisan hatred against Prime Minister Modi. In a nation of 1.3 billion people, there are always going to be half a dozen individuals who will do something stupid. Or just attention seekers, who know exactly what the media comes looking for in India. The media picked up these instances, exaggerated them beyond all reason and made it appear as if these were the norm. By using a variety of weasel words such as ruling party supporters, Hindutva activists and the like, they managed to connect it to the Prime Minister. Or they could just twist an incident outright.
For instance, the Prime Minister requested people at one point to light diyas and bang thalis to raise a cheer for India’s Covid warriors. By carefully choosing your words on this as well as the sentences around it, you could make it appear as if the Prime Minister said that banging thalis would put an end to the virus. A foreign audience would fall for this.
But what do the numbers say? Are Indians really an unscientific people? As on date, India has provided nearly 105 crore doses of vaccine. By the beginning of October, 71 percent of Indian adults had received at least one dose of the vaccine. Healthcare workers strode out to the remotest parts of the country. They braved floods, crossed rivers on foot, climbed mountains and made it across deserts to deliver the vaccine. Everywhere they went, they were welcomed as heroes. Each dose was recorded in a central database, and a downloadable certificate with QR code provided on the spot with jaw dropping efficiency.
And how is the United States doing, for instance? The White House had set an official target of 70 percent of the adult population to receive at least one dose of vaccine by July 4. They missed that target. The figure of 70 percent was reached only in early August. In other words, India, which reached the 70 percent threshold in early October, is two months behind. That sounds pretty good for a country with a per capita GDP that is roughly twenty times less than that of the US.
How did the vaccination program in the United States slow down to a crawl? Because of vaccine hesitancy. The Americans turned science into political football. Because Joe Biden is the president, the people who oppose him are refusing to take vaccines. Apparently, they would rather die. Now, President Biden has instituted a nationwide vaccine mandate. But many people still prefer to quit their jobs rather than take the vaccine. There is an online market now for those seeking religious exemptions from the vaccine mandate and it’s humming with customers. There is even a black market where people are spending hundreds of dollars to get fake vaccination certificates. All this, instead of spending a couple of dollars to get vaccinated and save your own life. Who is unscientific now?
The United States is not alone in this plight. There have been massive anti-vaccine demonstrations all across the western world, in France, in Germany and in the United Kingdom. Some of the most violent protests happened in Italy. In Australia, the protesters clashed with police on the streets. The police had to use pepper spray and rubber grenades.
Nothing of this sort has happened anywhere in India. In other words, the Indian people embraced science when it really mattered. Today, the Indian walks around with head held high because the nation has achieved the landmark figure of 1 billion vaccine doses. Most ironically, the same global media is attacking India for taking too much pride in achieving this milestone. In a world where western countries have to use riot police to subdue anti-vaccine protesters, they should have bigger things to worry about. OPINION: Time to Stop Running Away
So how do you explain the absence of a significant anti-vaccine movement in India? As with so many things about India, will the liberals ascribe this to the veneration of the cow? Or will they give the credit to the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for unifying the people behind the science? Don’t hold your breath.
As a matter of fact, this is not the only sphere where Indians have shown a remarkably scientific attitude towards the world, ahead of most other democracies. Like everyone else, we need coal and fossil fuels to keep our economy running. But nobody in India, whether on the left or the right, doubts climate change. There is no organized movement to deny climate change nor its effects. Neither is there any public resistance to teaching scientific facts such as evolution in schools.
How can Indians be so religious and so scientific at the same time? The average liberal mind, which cannot think beyond binaries formed in the West, is not equipped to handle this. They cannot understand how Hindus live in harmony with nature and the people around them. They are never itching to divide the world into enemy camps of “believer” and “non-believer.” That is why they do not turn things such as vaccines, climate change or evolution into absurd purity tests. If the liberals were to admit this aspect of Hinduism, it would open up uncomfortable questions about Abrahamic religions and what secularism means in the Hindu context. It is easier to take the intellectually dishonest route, to make jokes about ‘cow worshipers’ and to reinforce prejudices. Especially, when the latter can be financially so rewarding and provide a position of prestige within the global media ecosystem.
Right now, the world is passing through a collective test of basic IQ. Are you willing to take a vaccine and save your life with a couple of pin pricks? It is really not that hard. And yet, a shocking number of people in the West are failing it. The much maligned Indians are coming out ahead.
(Abhishek Banerjee is a writer and columnist)
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