Ever since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Indians have denied the virus. From begrudgingly see-sawing between vaccine hesitancy and getting one too many shots to desperately Googling alternative cures for Covid-19, the past two years have been a whirlwind of clanging plates, conspiracy theories, quack cures and fake WhatsApp forwards. Despite innumerable losses, uncountable deaths and unprecedented restrictions, many 'informed' individuals in India continue to deny the pandemic with unscientific claims and theories that defy both logic and science. The latest is the belief that getting Omicron will act as a "natural vaccine" and end the pandemic. No need to get vaccinated anymore, just get Omicron.
Needless to say, there isn't a shred of data to support such a theory. The fact that many Indians have already started believing Omicron to be the end of the pandemic, however, comes as no surprise. While Covid-19 left the whole world a little weirder, things in India definitely took a turn for the absurd. Fuelled by lack of awareness, unequal access to healthcare, fluctuating rules and a flourishing misinformation industry sitting on everyone's mobile phones, the Covid-19 pandemic threw up many instances that can easily put common sense to shame.
Take the case of the 84-year-old man in Bihar's Madhepur who claims to have taken 12 shots of Bharat Biotech's Covaxin in one year. While the incident reveals a glaring lapse in India's vaccination drive, the octogenarian seems to be happy. In an interview with Indian Express, he said that over the year, his overall health kept improving and that his arthritis had never been better. But don’t let one man’s belief in the vaccine fool you. Much India continues to remain wary of the jab. Just last week, a Puducherry man was found sitting on top of a tree to avoid healthcare workers who had arrived to vaccinate him. Puducherry recently made vaccinations mandatory for all citizens.
The lack of interest many Indians have in vaccines is apparent in some of the rules that concerned authorities devised to increase vaccination numbers. In Haryana, for instance, only those vaccinated with two doses of the vaccine were allowed to enter malls last month. While politicians in the country often wax eloquent about the success of India’s vaccine drive, the fact that a trip to the mall is higher on the list of priorities for some than dying or losing loved ones to Covid-19 is telling.
Much of this nonchalance and disregard for the vaccines (and science in general) seems to draw its lifeblood from the arsenal of home cures and alternate hacks (read ‘totkas’) Indians have discovered in the past two years to fight Covid-19, thanks to WhatsApp University.
Last year, a heavily shared forward, claimed that Covid-19 was not a virus at all but a bacteria which could be treated with a simple aspirin. The fake news was so widely shared that in a few days, the Press Information Bureau had to put out a clarification online to bust the myth. This happened in September 2021, over 15 months since the pandemic officially began and just months after thousands of officially reported deaths during the Delta-driven second wave in India. Seeing is not always believing.
But why blame just WhatsApp? Indian politicians are some of the biggest peddlers of quackery. During the peak of the pandemic, a BJP leader in West Bengal had asserted that drinking cow urine would help fight Covid-19. In Rajasthan, a Congress MLA suggested getting drunk to kill the virus directly inside the body. Even during the second wave, a former Madhya Pradesh chief minister said that people should perform 12-hour pujas and “yagna chikitsa” (treatment by fire) to prevent a third wave of Covid-19. Days before making the claim, the latter had gone viral on social media for appearing in public events without a mask. More proof that in India, we know our priorities.
Covid-19 also made its way to religion. Even as healthcare workers and scientists harped on the importance of maintaining Covid-19 protocols, hundreds thronged to the worship of the newly conceived ‘Corona Devi’ in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Assam. UP even has a temple dedicated to ‘goddess Corona’ now. In West Bengal, Covid-themed Durga Puja pandals were a rage last year, drawing massive crowds who threw caution (along with their masks) to the wind and gathered en masse to see Durga wearing a face mask. The irony cannot be masked.
Now, with the Omicron variant spreading like wildfire across the country and heralding in the third wave, complicated and barely understood concepts like “super immunity” and “natural vaccines” have become the new catchphrases for Indians looking for new escapes from their Covid-reality. Debates about how the new variants react with natural and vaccine-acquired immunity have been around for a while now and scientists have not discounted the possibility of a milder variant affecting large masses and leading to a kind of 'herd immunity. Most of these theories are at a hypothetical stage and papers on super immunity are yet to be peer-reviewed. But the sanguine, maskless crowds thronging local hotspots all through the “holiday season” and that stoic uncle on your family WhatsApp group know better. “It’s all just a ‘Big Pharma’ hoax,” after all.
Scientists, however, are a nervous lot. Many including those helming WHO have started warning against the dangers of believing that the pandemic is over. The caseload in the country has started mounting rapidly and though Omicron is reportedly milder, it has indeed caused deaths. And don’t be mistaken, older variants like Delta are still around. Newer ‘variants’ like IHU in France continue to pop up. Cocktail infections are leading to curious new conditions like “Delmicron” and “Florona”.
My elderly and heavily comorbid aunt has not stepped out of her home in Kolkata in two years. Due to high blood sugar and other comorbidities, she is not eligible to get the Covid-19 jab. She has a heart condition and her irises have started to cloud over, in dire need of cataract surgery. They are yet to come up with “online surgeries”. She lumbers around, bored and bitter inside her two-bedroom apartment even as the world outside er shifts and turns into yet another wave. She reads the news about “super immunity” and “natural vaccines” and divine Covid-19 cures on WhatsApp. Of course, she wants the pandemic to be over but she fears the virus is here to stay. Without getting a vaccine, she fears she will be tapped at home forever. Data shows that though Omicron is milder, those without vaccine-immunity may end up with more severe symptoms.
Is it really wise to wait for Omicron to turn into a “natural vaccine” instead of getting the ACTUAL vaccine? Does flouting Covid-19 protocols because the pandemic MIGHT be over risk the lives of the many vulnerable persons in the country who remain unvaccinated? WhatsApp University does not have the answers.