Covid-19: India’s fight against cow dung and other misinformation

A volunteer carries the body of a child who died of Covid-19 for the last rites at a crematorium in New Delhi, on 12 May. Photo: AFP

As India’s health system sags under the weight of an unprecedented second wave of Covid-19 medical quackery is growing in the gaps.

From cow dung baths to mass “anti-Covid” steam-inhalation events, misinformation is rampant – and some government officials have been partly to blame.

In Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat, a group of Hindu monks visit a cow shelter every week to lather themselves in cow dung, in the hope it will offer protection from the virus.

The cow is considered sacred among Hindus, with some believing cow dung and urine to have antiseptic properties.

This belief that cow products – milk, dung, urine – contain medicinal or restorative properties has been promoted by government officials.

Weeks before the world’s biggest Covid-19 lockdown last year, a ruling party legislator in an eastern Indian state claimed burning cow dung would release smoke that prevents viral infections, local media reported.

The government itself last year called for more research into the medicinal properties of milk, dung, and urine belonging to indigenous Indian cows – a move that was widely criticised by Indian scientists.

This year, a ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member of the Legislative Assembly from India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh recommended in a YouTube video that people consume cow urine diluted with water as a way to defeat Covid-19.

None of these claims are backed by evidence.

The Indian Medical Association said neither cow dung nor cow urine were legitimate Covid-19 treatments, and their use in this way risked spreading other diseases.

Infectious diseases specialist Associate Professor Sanjaya Senanayake from the Australian National University also said there was no science behind this belief, and it could be harmful.

“Cow dung and cow urine can contain other pathogens that could then lead to a second infection on top of Covid, which worsens your outcome,” Professor Senanayake said.

He said people should be focused on a few proven actions in order to reduce one’s risk of catching the virus.

“The key things are to wash your hands with soap and water, or an alcoholic sanitiser when possible; practise social distancing; and wear a mask if you cannot keep a distance.”

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