India’s present situation is dire, as it is embattled by a second wave of COVID-19 cases. At the most inopportune of moments, quack doctors are providing false relief to people as hospitals struggle to cope with the burden.
Of the most well known of these quack doctors is Biswaroop Roy Chowdhury — India’s so-called “COVID quack”, profiled recently by BBC News. Chowdhury was once a social media star, using the platform to flog dietary courses as a cure-all for conditions such as diabetes and even AIDS. Since social media platforms have cracked down on false information regarding COVID-19, Chowdhury has been removed from all major social media channels.
Despite the controversies surrounding his statements, Chowdhury remains popular in India. He has forged a digital empire consisting of online nutrition courses, certification programmes, and consultancy services that have endured long since his expulsion from social media sites.
Chowdhury does not shy away from extreme claims. “According to me, most deaths are not because of coronavirus itself but because of its treatment,” he notes on his website. “Drugs do not help in curing any illness,” he told the BBC. “I strongly believe that humans do not need vaccines at all.”
He has made claims that medications are simply a scheme by the government and “Big Pharma” companies of “lining their pockets”. Quite hypocritically, Chowdhury has laid claim to a substantial degree of financial success from his own “treatment courses”, as the medical miracles he peddles do not come free of charge.
His consultation services come at a cost of Rs 500. For this price an individual will receive a “three-step diet plan” which he claims is a flu cure – one which will also, he claims, cure an individual of COVID-19. Reportedly, this cure remains the same for any disease discussed with Chowdhury.
Doctors have suggested in the case of both the flu and with COVID-19, these quacks have found a niche that, to the uninformed, can make their false claims seem genuine. Dr Arun Gupta, president of the Delhi Medical Council points out that most people will recover from the virus regardless of what they eat, whether this be a normal diet or Chowdhury’s diet plan. “If you claim you take 100 patients and I claim that I cure all of you, you see 97 percent are going to get cured, even without any intervention,” he says.
These claims, however, can be dangerous. False hope in a situation in which the majority survive the condition takes advantage of misinforming people for financial gain — the very thing Chowdhury claims that conventional medicine represents. However, to peddle a false cure for conditions such as AIDS can endanger an individuals life.
As Health Issues India has previously noted, as the COVID-19 crisis has worsened, fraud has become rife. “Evidence is mounting that individuals are running scamming campaigns through social media, with black market numbers circulating online. These individuals promise to deliver items such as oxygen canisters and medications. When contacted, these individuals typically request payments upfront… once payment has been made all contact will cease.”
Such individuals peddling scams and false hopes are dangerous, putting lives on the line in the absence of adequate medical help. Chowdhury’s own history is testament to this. With no medical degree or history of medical education, he peddles these “cures” while encouraging individuals to forego actual medical help.
In one instance this has resulted in the death of an individual under his care. Shanti Bihani, was suffering from diabetes and heart and thyroid problems. After discovering Mr Chowdhury on the internet, Mrs Bihani’s family paid hundreds of dollars to attend a three-day event to learn his diabetes cure.
It is at this course that Chowdhury revealed one of his more dangerous practices. “I’ve got a box with me, it is called the medical orange box… All the medicines, we will put here and put a lock [on it]. So I hope you will never need those medicines again,” he said. “The moment you have your first diet, that will make you heart attack proof from that time,” he told the individuals at the event. The next day, without her medication, Mrs Bihani complained of feeling faint, eventually passing out. She was later taken to a hospital where she died of a heart attack. The event has spurred a criminal complaint against Chowdhury accusing him of falsely claiming to be a medical practitioner, offering fraudulent treatments and failing to provide emergency care at the course.
Such issues have only escalated with the COVID-19 pandemic. So-called “witch doctors” have been offering services in areas where hospitals have run out of supplies. In many cases individuals have died in hospitals even after gaining access to ICU beds as oxygen supplies have run low. Many have turned to black market dealers, others still have gone to faith healers, quacks and witch doctors.
Yogesh Gavit in the state of Maharashtra took his father to a faith healer after exhausting options for medical treatment in the area. The witch doctor used a hot iron rod to brand Mr Dharma, arguing it would drive out the infection from his lungs. “I was horrified to see the deep wounds on his body. I was scared we may lose him because he had become weak and needed healing for both wounds and the deadly virus,” said Gavit.
“A lot of COVID patients who come to us are complaining of pain in their abdomen and breathlessness. What these witch doctors do, they will brand them where the pain is. If they have abdominal pain, they will brand it there and for a headache, they will mark the head,” explained Dr Deepak Singh, the head of Chinchpada Christian hospital in Nandurbar.
The use of services such as the witch doctors, black markets and quack doctors such as Biswaroop Roy Chowdhury is a sign of true desperation as both individuals and the medical system struggle against the pandemic. The total number of cases has now surpassed twenty million, with daily new case counts remaining above 300,000 for more than a week. Hospitals and medical facilities are now all but entirely overrun. India’s medical system was overburdened before the pandemic, it has since been pushed to breaking point. More must be done to ensure that treatment can be availed by all, the alternative is for more and more people to turn to scams or ineffective alternative treatments in desperation, risking lives in the process.