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In COVID-19 fight: India's media must promote science, not superstition


Although India has, as yet, only 1,250 cases of COVID-19, the pandemic is already revealing the profound and disturbing link that exists between public misunderstanding of science, religion and media consumption in the country.

After the outbreak of COVID-19, a party worker from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the state of West Bengal organized a cow urine consumption event to protect people from infection. Other public voices have endorsed the view that cow urine functions as an elixir, effective not only in warding off COVID-19 but diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart attacks.

Hindu nationalist Yogi Adityanath, who is chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state and also a monk, has supported the idea that practising yoga can cure COVID-19 infection. Others have propounded that natural defenses such as India's relatively high temperature and humidity challenge the survival of the novel coronavirus. These are not scientific ways to prevent or cure the outbreak.

Although Prime Minster Narendra Modi has announced a three-week nationwide lockdown to break the COVID-19 infection cycle, much of its success will depend on the public's knowledge of and trust in science and reason. As a science communicator at a college in the University of Delhi, I am worried about public levels of scientific understanding, and the media's role in conveying correct information.

Proponents of Hindu nationalism in India have often claimed that recent developments in science and technology have their origins in the knowledge system of ancient Indians. In 2014, Modi, addressing an assembly of medical doctors and other professionals, cited examples from Hindu mythology and scriptures to propagate the idea that cosmetic surgery and genetic science existed in ancient times.

Less than twelve hours after Modi announced the lockdown, Yogi Adityanath led prayers with prominent holy men from the town in attendance while ritually moving the idol of a Hindu deity.

All of this is deeply ironic in a country whose first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, strongly advocated for a scientific temper or mindset as a way of life. Article 51 A(h) of the Indian constitution even states that it is the fundamental duty of every citizen to develop the "scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform" to address the problems of poverty, poor sanitation and illiteracy.

That this mindset has not spread more widely is in part due to the media, which instead of helping the public to cultivate its scientific temper and guide India forward have propagated superstitions.

While print media in India have a long history of struggle against colonialism and have been successful in helping to eradicate social evils, powerful new electronic media have on the contrary largely failed to perform this role to its full potential.

They could have spread knowledge of important ideas like artificial intelligence, climate change, nuclear power, the space program and medical discoveries, but they have circulated information to support people's preexisting attitudes and beliefs.

Much of the media in India is controlled by large, for-profit corporations in the absence of restrictions on cross-media ownership. These companies therefore prioritize economic growth and business interests over the other democratic functions of media, encouraging consumerism, entertainment and self-gratification.

For the few who want information about scientific knowledge in India, they have to seek it out and pay for it, whereas news about cricket, politics and entertainment easily finds its way to audiences through social media and television. The fascination with entertainment-driven content shapes people's mindsets and makes them more likely to believe what these programs say, which tends to be unscientific or even hostile to science.

There are multiple things that this COVID-19 outbreak has exposed about India. One is that it urgently needs to learn to respect its scientists, doctors, scholars and anyone who contributes to the proliferation of rational thinking. Those who question the government's spending on defense rather than health, its investing in the rich rather than the poor, are the voices needed for building a better India.

India in the last decade has witnessed a string of assassinations of rationalist writers. What made these rationalists a "threat" was that through their writings they invited the public to question myths, superstitions and discriminatory practices such as the caste system in Hinduism. These rationalists had aimed to spread knowledge that would curb superstition and challenge the circulation of anti-science rhetoric in society. It is such rational voices which strongly need to be protected by the state.

We cannot blame everything wrong about the circulation of messages in India on the media. Scientists, doctors and academics also need to be less fearful of the media and must seek stronger ties with those who write, produce and direct television news and entertainment programs.

Only science-driven content can help Indian voters to realize the importance of sending those legislators to parliament who prioritize the scientific method against superstitions.