Misinformation within the Indian COVID-19 pandemic: April to June 2021

COVID-19 has hit India hard. In fact, official deaths attributable to the infectious disease is 452,485 – a figure universally recognised as vastly underestimating total number of deaths. On top of such depressing figures are the 34 million recorded cases. The deadly second wave, lasting much of April and June 2021 was further complicated by the hard to untangle problems of misinformation and vaccine hesitancy.

This report aims to shed some light on the incidence of the misinformation, and how its incidence was greatest within states which suffered disproportionately from the total number of recorded deaths. In doing so, the report takes data from the Google Trends, a freely available resource.

On 6th October 2020, whilst vaccine developers were awaiting official regulatory approval, the Indian Health Ministry had begun to recommend traditional remedies to tackle COVID, with health minister Harsh Vardhan releasing recommendations based on Ayurveda, India’s millennia old system of herbal medicine. The rebuke was sharp and fierce; the Indian Medical Association, a body of over 250,000 medicine practitioners, writing that Vardhan was “inflicting a fraud on the nation and gullible patients by calling placebos as drugs”. Given the scale of COVID, and a certain feeling of inevitability regarding its spread prior to the second wave, misinformation appeared ripe to spread in a nation where institutions were ill-equipped to inspire direct trust within the diverse nation (although not completely unheard of nor impossible, given the successful historical rollouts of the polio vaccine during the 20th century). However, the government certainly exacerbated, instigated and catalysed the trend, whether out of desperation, necessity or a belief that nationalism could be deployed to promote belief within indigenously developed medicines.

The adage, of someone who “shot himself in the foot” appears apt.

The following key search words were included for this analysis.

  1.  “ayush” (an Ayurvedic medicine produced by the Indian government)
  2. “Coronil (a controversial concoction promoted by popular yoga guru Baba Ramdev and produced by the big consumer group Patanjali)
  3. “Ayurvedic” – a catch-all phrase for such herbal medicines which were never backed by large scale efficacy trials.

When measuring the incidence of misinformation, I decided not to use covid-cases per 10,000 as a reference point given the chronic underreporting of covid cases, especially within regions with urban areas, for instance the Administrative district of Delhi would thus be over-represented compared to the Region of Uttar Pradesh, which has a population greater than America, simply because its Serum positive prevalence was estimated at over 40%  a shocking statistic implying that nearly half of all households in New Delhi had contracted the COVID-19 virus – but nonetheless misleading when used to compare the total number of cases.

Thus, as a baseline, I use the key word “hospital beds” which acts as a proxy for serious COVID-19 infection rates within certain regions. This was indexed against certain regions, with one state/region always having an index of 100*. The plots are shown as follows:

The charts make for interesting reasoning, of which a single article will not be able to do full justice. Nonetheless, the slope of the regression line between “Ayurvedic” and Hospital Beds appears significant, and warrants further tests on its significance. However, one conclusion is that the incidence of specific fake remedies, including “Ayush” and “Coronil” was not a national phenomenon. There might be several reasons for this, including the level of trust within the general population towards the health ministry.

Nonetheless, whilst the high degree of correlation between “Ayurvedic” and “Hospital Beds” suggests that misinformation was a national movement, specific versions of herbal medicines didn’t affect all regions with the same severity.

Conclusion? Misinformation is heterogenous.

* Technical note: Due to lack of search information across all regions, especially smaller regions, the 100 index may not always be available.

This article was written by: Ishan Kalia, currently a student at the London School of Economics, pursuing BSc Economics.

Published by Ishan

Hi everyone. I am an incoming Economics undergraduate and enjoy writing on foreign policy, political economy, monetary policy etc. All views expressed are my own. Please get in touch at ishankalia03@gmail.com for any comments/ queries/ etc.

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