The political theatre of Vardhan v. Ramdev

Last week, Baba Ramdev made offensive remarks against allopathic medicine and against people desperately looking for oxygen for their loved ones hospitalised with COVID-19. On Sunday, Union health minister Harsh Vardhan sent a letter to Ramdev asking him to withdraw his comments. On Monday morning, news reports suggested Ramdev had done so.

However, it wasn’t clear why the Indian government – so trigger-happy against any small, even nonexistent, slights against “India’s reputation” – didn’t book Ramdev under the Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 or any other law. Or is this not the right question to ask?

Compare Vardhan’s letter on Sunday to Ramdev to his letter on April 20 to former prime minister Manmohan Singh. A day earlier, Singh had written to Modi suggesting that the Centre give the states more flexibility to locally adapt the vaccination programme and share the Centre-company vaccine orders with the people.

In response, Vardhan lashed out, accusing Singh’s Congress party of “fuelling vaccine hesitancy”, spreading fake news and the states in which it was in power of being the biggest contributors to India’s second wave. It was a madman’s diatribe with no basis in fact or sense, designed to curry favour with his own party, and his Supreme Leader, instead of taking the opportunity to respond directly to Singh’s suggestions.

In contrast, Vardhan’s letter to Ramdev – whose remarks were as destructive as Singh’s were constructive – is cajoling. Here’s a translation by NDTV (the original is in Hindi):

The people of the country are very hurt with your remark on allopathic medicines. I have already told you about this feeling over phone. Doctors and health workers are like gods for the people of the country for whom they are fighting against the coronavirus risking their lives.

You have not only insulted Corona warriors, but have hurt the feelings of the people of the country. Your clarification yesterday is not enough to make up for it… I hope you will think hard on it and withdraw your statements completely.

A former prime minister and one of India’s greatest economists is met with blockheaded whataboutery whereas an unscrupulous businessman in cahoots with the national party and with no regard for the morals of public healthcare is coaxed gently into withdrawing his remarks, as if the minister is wary of tripping the wrong wire. This is political theatre pure and simple.

In a government apparatus that has never, in the last half-decade of its rule, done anything without the express permission of its prime minister, it’s not likely that Vardhan or Ramdev have violated this rule now. The big flip side of totally centralised power is that the buck never moves past the same person.

Ramdev was set up to say something offensive and Vardhan was set up push back in a display of understated authority, but authority nonetheless – to signal to the party’s followers that the government, despite so many expressions in India, the US and Europe to the contrary, is in charge and is looking out for the interests of healthcare workers, who show up in Vardhan’s letter as “Corona warriors”. Now that the project has accomplished its goals, the Supreme Leader and his office has allowed Ramdev to withdraw without consequence into his corporate offices and for Vardhan to bask in his ‘victory’.

But numerous healthcare workers have been offended by Ramdev’s remarks, many of them on Twitter, and so has the Indian Medical Association. Is the minister really looking out for anyone here apart from the party followers? This is the right question to ask.

Featured image: Harsh Vardhan and Baba Ramdev. Credits: MST/PIB and Kumari Anu/PIB, Wikimedia Commons.

The WHA coronavirus resolution is not great for science

On May 19, member states of the WHO moved a vote in the World Health Assembly (WHA), asking for an independent investigation into the sources of the novel coronavirus.

Their exact demands were spelled out in a draft resolution that asked the WHO to, among other things, “identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts, including through efforts such as scientific and collaborative field missions”.

The resolution was backed by 62 countries, including India, and the decision to adopt it was passed with 116 votes in favour, out of 194. This fraction essentially indicates that the overwhelming majority of WHO’s member states want to ‘reform’ the organisation towards a better response to the pandemic, especially in terms of obtaining information that they believe China has been reluctant to share.

The resolution follows from Australia’s demand in April 2020 for a public inquiry against China, suggesting that the Asian superpower was responsible for the virus and the global outbreak (not surprisingly, US President Donald Trump expressed his support). Together with the fact that the document doesn’t once mention China, the resolution is likely an expression of concern that seeks to improve international access to biological samples, specific locations and research data necessary to find out how the novel coronavirus came to infect humans, and which animal or avian species were intermediate hosts.

As it happens, this arguably legitimate demand doesn’t preclude the possibility that the resolution is motivated, at least in part, by the need to explore what is in many political leaders’ view the ‘alternative’ that the virus originated in a Chinese lab.

The WHA vote passed and the independent investigation will happen – but by who or how is unclear. Let’s assume for now that some team or other comes together and conducts the requisite studies.

What if the team does find that the virus is not lab-made? Will those WHO member states, and/or their politicians back home, that were in favour of the resolution to explore the ‘lab hypothesis’ let the matter rest? Or will they point fingers at the WHO and claim it is too favourable to China, as President Trump has already done and to which the resolution’s reformatory language alludes?

In fact, the investigation is unlikely to zero in on the virus’s origins if they were natural because too much time has passed since the first zoonotic spillover event. The bread crumbs could have long faded by the time the investigation team sets out on its task. It won’t be impossible, mind, but it will be very difficult and likely require many months to conclude.

But what if the investigation somehow finds that the virus was engineered in a lab and then leaked, either deliberately or accidentally? Will the scientists and those who believed them (including myself) stand corrected?

They will not. There’s a simple reason why: they – we – have thus far not been given enough evidence to reach this conclusion.

Indeed, there is already sufficient explanation these days to claim that the novel coronavirus is of natural origin and insufficient explanation that it was engineered. A study published on March 17, 2020, collected evidence for the former (and many others continue to do so). An excerpt from the conclusion:

The genomic features described here may explain in part the infectiousness and transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2 in humans. Although the evidence shows that SARS-CoV-2 is not a purposefully manipulated virus, it is currently impossible to prove or disprove the other theories of its origin described here. However, since we observed all notable SARS-CoV-2 features, including the optimised RBD and polybasic cleavage site, in related coronaviruses in nature, we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.

If there is any animosity at all directed at China for supposedly engineering the virus, the countries that backed the resolution could only have done so by actively ignoring the evidence that already exists to the contrary.

In this particular case, it becomes extremely important for the representatives of these countries to explain why they think the evidence that scientists have not been able to find actually exists, and that they are simply yet to discover it. That is, why do they think some pieces are missing from the puzzle?

There is of course room for a deeper counter-argument here, but it isn’t entirely tenable either. One could still argue that there might be a larger ‘super-theory’ that encompasses the present one even as it elucidates a non-natural origin for the virus. This is akin to the principle of correspondence in the philosophy of science. The advent of the theories of relativity did not invalidate the Newtonian theory of gravity. Instead, the former resemble the latter in the specific domain in which the latter is applicable. Similarly, a ‘super-theory’ of the virus’s origins could point to evidence of bioengineering even as its conclusions resemble the evidence I’m pointing to to ascertain that the virus is natural.

But even then, the question remains: Why do you think such a theory exists?

Without this information, we are at risk of wasting our time in each pandemic looking for alternate causes that may or may not exist, many of which are quite politically convenient as well.

Perhaps we can assimilate a sign of things to come based on Harsh Vardhan’s performance as the chairman of the WHA’s executive board. Vardhan was elected into this position at the same WHA that adopted the draft resolution, and his highest priority is likely to be the independent investigation that the resolution calls for. As it happens, according to OP8 of the resolution, the resolution:

… calls on international organisations and other relevant stakeholders to … address, and where relevant in coordination with Member States, the proliferation of disinformation and misinformation particularly in the digital sphere, as well as the proliferation of malicious cyber-activities that undermine the public health response, and support the timely provision of clear, objective and science-based data and information to the public.

India as a member state is certainly a stakeholder, and Nitin Gadkari, one of the country’s senior ministers, recently said in an interview that the novel coronavirus was made in a lab. This is misinformation plain and simple, and goes against the call for the “timely provision of clear, objective and science-based information to the public”. Will the chair address this, please – or even future instances of such imprudence?

Ultimately, unless the investigation ends with the conspiracists changing their minds, the only outcome that seems to be guaranteed is that scientists will know their leaders no longer trust their work.

Featured image: The assembly hall of the Palace of Nations, Geneva, where the World Health Assembly usually meets. Photo: Tom Page/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Dehumanising language during an outbreak

It appears the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has begun local transmission in India, i.e. infecting more people within the country instead of each new patient having recently travelled to an already affected country. The advent of local transmission is an important event in the lexicon of epidemics and pandemics because, at least until 2009, that’s how the WHO differentiated between the two.

As of today, the virus has become locally transmissible in the world’s two most populous countries. At this juncture, pretty much everyone expects the number of cases within India to only increase, and as it does, the public healthcare system won’t be the only one under pressure. Reporters and editors will be too, and they’re likely to be more stressed on one front: their readers.

For example, over the course of March 4, the following sentences appeared in various news reports of the coronavirus:

The Italian man infected 16 Italians, his wife and an Indian driver.

The infected techie boarded a bus to Hyderabad from Bengaluru and jeopardised the safety of his co-passengers.

Two new suspected coronavirus cases have been reported in Hyderabad.

All 28 cases of infection are being monitored, the health ministry has said.

Quite a few people on Twitter, and likely in other fora, commented that these lines exemplify the sort of insensitivity towards patients that dehumanises them, elides their agency and casts them as perpetrators – of the transmission of a disease – and which, perhaps given enough time and reception, could engender apathy and even animosity towards the poorer sick.

The problem words seem to include ‘cases’, ‘burden’ and ‘infected’. But are they a problem, really? I ask because though I understand the complaints, I think they’re missing an important detail.

Referring to people as if they were objects only furthers their impotency in a medical care setup in which doctors can’t be questioned and the rationale for diagnoses is frequently secreted – both conditions ripe for exploitation. At the same time, the public part of this system has to deal with a case load it is barely equipped for and whose workers are underpaid relative to their counterparts in the private sector.

As a result, a doctor seeing 10- or 20-times as many patients as they’ve been trained and supported to will inevitably precipitate some amount of dehumanisation, and it could in fact help medical workers cope with circumstances in which they’re doing all they can to help but the patient suffers anyway. So dehumanisation is not always bad.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the word ‘dehumanise’ and the attitude ‘dehumanise’ can and often do differ. For example, Union home minister Amit Shah calling Bangladeshi immigrants “termites” is not the same as a high-ranking doctor referring to his patient in terms of their disease, and this doctor is not the same as an overworked nurse referring to the people in her care as ‘cases’. The last two examples are progressively more forgivable because their use of the English language is more opportunistic, and the nurse in the last example may not intentionally dehumanise their patients if they knew what their words meant.

(The doctor didn’t: his example is based on a true story.)

Problematic attitudes often manifest most prominently as problematic words and labels but the use of a word alone wouldn’t imply a specific attitude in a country that has always had an uneasy relationship with the English language. Reporters and editors who carefully avoid potentially debilitating language as well as those who carefully use such language are both in the minority in India. Instead, my experiences as a journalist over eight years suggest the majority is composed of people who don’t know the language is a problem, who don’t have the time, energy and/or freedom to think about casual dehumanisation, and who don’t deserve to be blamed for something they don’t know they’re doing.

But by fixating on just words, and not the world of problems that gives rise to them, we risk interrogating and blaming the wrong causes. It would be fairer to expect journalists of, say, the The Guardian or the Washington Post to contemplate the relationship between language and thought if only because Western society harbours a deeper understanding of the healthcare system it originated, and exported to other parts of the world with its idiosyncrasies, and because native English speakers are likelier to properly understand the relationship between a word, its roots and its use in conversation.

On the other hand, non-native users of English – particularly non-fluent users – have no option but to use the words ‘case’, ‘burden’ and ‘infected’. The might actually prefer other words if:

  • They knew that (and/or had to accommodate their readers’ pickiness for whether) the word they used meant more than what they thought it did, or
  • They knew alternative words existed and were equally valid, or
  • They could confidently differentiate between a technical term and its most historically, socially, culturally and/or technically appropriate synonym.

But as it happens, these conditions are seldom met. In India, English is mostly reserved for communication; it’s not the language of thought for most people, especially most journalists, and certainly doesn’t hold anything more than a shard of mirror-glass to our societies and their social attitudes as they pertain to jargon. So as such, pointing to a reporter and asking them to say ‘persons infected with coronavirus’ instead of ‘case’ will magically reveal neither the difference between ‘case’ or ‘infected’ the scientific terms and ‘case’ or ‘infected’ the pejoratives nor the negotiated relationship between the use of ‘case’ and dehumanisation. And without elucidating the full breadth of these relationships, there is no way either doctors or reporters are going to modify their language simply because they were asked to – nor will their doing so, on the off chance, strike at the real threats.

On the other hand, there is bound to be an equally valid problem in terms of those who know how ‘case’ and ‘infected’ can be misused and who regularly read news reports whose use of English may or may not intend to dehumanise. Considering the strong possibility that the author may not know they’re using dehumanising language and are unlikely to be persuaded to write differently, those in the know have a corresponding responsibility to accommodate what is typically a case of the unknown unknowns and not ignorance or incompetence, and almost surely not malice.

This is also why I said reporters and editors might be stressed by their readers, rather their perspectives, and not on count of their language.

A final point: Harsh Vardhan, the Union health minister and utterer of the words “The Italian man infected 16 Italians”, and Amit Shah belong to the same party – a party that has habitually dehumanised Muslims, Dalits and immigrants as part of its nationalistic, xenophobic and communal narratives. More recently, the same party from its place at the Centre suspected a prominent research lab of weaponising the Nipah virus with help from foreign funds, and used this far-fetched possibility as an excuse to terminate the lab’s FCRA license.

So when Vardhan says ‘infected’, I reflexively, and nervously, double-check his statement for signs of ambiguity. I’m also anxious that if more Italian nationals touring India are infected by SARS-CoV-2 and the public healthcare system slips up on control measures, a wave of anti-Italian sentiment could follow.