Cashing in On the Pandemic
BY Methmalie Dissanayake
Superstition overcoming science and sensibility is common, especially in South Asian societies, when faced with dire situations and Sri Lanka is no different if not it is topping the list. This was quite evident during the past year, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country, as many kept faith in God-given concoctions over facemasks, soap, sanitisers or social distancing.
This habitual tendency towards superstitious practices has paved the way for looters and fraudsters, who do not believe in humanity, to milk money from the fear-stricken miserable people and the latest of such is a company that claimed to have found a miraculous dietary supplement to fight against a global pandemic, a shaman and wrestler who claimed to have found a miracle remedy for COVID-19 and a so-called Ayurvedic doctor who advertises that she has a supplement to use against coronavirus.
Recently, a dietary supplement, which was allegedly produced after research done by allopathic doctors, went viral following a massive marketing campaign, which claimed the product could be used to ‘fight against COVID-19.’ According to the product description given by the company, this capsule is a result of a several-month-long research done by a group of allopathic doctors and Western scientists. Promotional materials claim that medical researchers showed the success rate of the product to be more than 95 per cent and all the ingredients used in this product are used in Ayurveda and traditional medicine streams, hence, it is a completely natural product.
In general, if such scientific discovery is made, the researchers/scientists publish their findings in an international peer reviewed journal for scientific acceptance, or publish an international patent to claim their findings are scientifically acceptable. All such products which come out during the hard times have no such scientific background or clinical proof that they are scientifically proven to cure/reduce COVID19 symptoms.
The company does not present any reports of the scientific researches they allegedly conducted. The only thing it does is holding press conferences, giving interviews for Youtube channels and newspapers and later use them for advertising.
Not only that, right after so called ‘Dhammika Peniya’ was proven false, hundreds of people were seen gathering in Katuwana area for get another cure. This time it has been manufactured by a person called ‘Angampora Weda Mahatha.’
Long queues could be seen before his ‘Weda Gedara’ to get the cure. Most of them were seemingly adults over 50 years. There was no social distance between the crowds. This was also advertised on social media to attract large crowds.
However, authorities did not take any action against the person who was responsible for organising these mass gatherings when the country is crushed with a critical third wave of coronavirus.
Moreover, another person, who claimed to be a lady Ayurvedic doctor, was seen carrying a massive social media campaign claiming that she has also invented a COVID-19 prevention medicine. This person gained a massive public following in recent times for allegedly finding a cure for dengue.
Although she claimed that the product was approved for COVID-19 by the Ayurvedic Formula Committee, Ceylon Today was able to confirm that the committee has not given any approval to market the product as a cure against COVID-19.
The documents provided by her also state that her product was merely registered by Ayurveda Formulary Committee. The letter clearly states that she should not advertise about the product on the media without obtaining prior approval of the committee. However, she openly advertised the product claiming that the ‘drug against COVID-19 was approved by Ayurveda Formulary Committee.’ Yet no action is taken against her for false advertising.
To earn the trust of the people, she also claims that she has ITI reports on the drug too. Industrial Technology Institute has only checked her drug for harmful chemicals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury. They have not claimed in any place that this so called drug could be used against COVID-19.
Responses from authorities
The Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC) informed its registrants that before anyone makes claims on the discovery of new medicines for COVID-19, they should have those medicines evaluated and approved by the National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA).
“The SLMC may initiate appropriate disciplinary action as per the Medical Ordinance against practitioners who fail to comply with this instruction,” the SLMC said and requested the media to verify whether such products are approved by the NMRA before giving publicity for such products.
The SLMC also said that the public may also raise any concerns regarding such claims in writing or via email to [email protected].
Furthermore, the Ayurvedic Medical Council of Sri Lanka also issued a statement, following social media campaigns about products which claim to be cures for COVID-19, that it will take action against those who advertise products that are not approved and clinically unrecognized for COVID-19.
However, to this date, it can be seen that all the persons who promote capsules, syrups and other kinds of formulas as protections against COVID-19 are engaging in their activities freely. It hasn’t been reported so far that both the SLMC and the Ayurvedic Medical Council has ever taken any action against them.
Why do the people tend to follow myths rather than scientifically proven facts?
Dr. Kapila Ranasinghe, Senior Consultant Psychiatrist at National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in an interview with Ceylon Today recently, said,
“Following the COVID-19 outbreak, several people who claimed that they are miracle healers, traditional doctors, etc., started to market themselves, mainly on social media. These people claimed that they have health products and medicines which can protect the people from the virus. Some even said that they can conduct mass healing sessions for the people. This is how they earn money from a pandemic. The truth is while their pockets are getting full, the people who are suffering economically and psychologically will be the ones that suffer.”
“In recent times we saw people who started to advertise that they have found cures for COVID-19. Some said they have alternative methods which could boost the immunity of a person to withstand COVID-19. Confused people tend to believe such claims and follow the advice of these shysters. They spend money for things like steam pots, syrups, etc. This is a vicious circle. A majority of people do not have much money. Many have lost their jobs and their sources of income due to the pandemic. Even in this backdrop, people spend money on these ‘quick fixes’ and get frustrated when they fail to give them the protection they want. Again, they tend to believe these myths due to frustration because their rational thinking is suppressed as a result of the pandemic,” he added.
Dr. Ranasinghe said that he has a simple question to ask those who claim that they have found a cure for COVID-19. If they have truly found a cure, why do they even stay in Sri Lanka? They could go countries such as India and the USA which have so many COVID-19 patients. If they could market their cure, our country will become one of the richest countries in the World. Our debts could be repaid by exporting such cures. We would not need to struggle economically anymore. The people should think about this, he said.
“Now everyone knows that many COVID-19 patients are asymptomatic. So, even I can claim that I have invented a cure which gives protection from COVID-19. Anyone can do that. So people should be extremely vigilant about the claims made by people,” he said.