As India saw its biggest single-day jump in new Covid-19 cases yesterday, with 75,760 infections confirmed and a tally of over 3.3 million cases, small but loud groups of pandemic deniers and anti-maskers have emerged.
The country is now entering the seventh month of mobility restrictions and the government mandates wearing masks in public. But in a video a week ago, five young people called for a boycott of masks, calling them “symbols of slavery” that are useless to prevent the coronavirus from entering the body. They then burned the masks.
This video had 617,000 views after it was shared by Mr Biswaroop Roy Chowdhury, a social media influencer with a talent for snappy Hindi videos and an evangelical mistrust of vaccines and antibiotics.
Twitter took the video down for violating its rules, but it is still up on Mr Chowdhury’s YouTube channel.
He proclaims to be a doctor – on his website, Twitter handle, Facebook account, YouTube channel and in over 25 books. His staff refer to him as “Dr Biswaroop”.
He has no medical training, but has a PhD in diabetes from Alliance International University in Zambia. His core business enterprise comprises camps across India, Malaysia and Vietnam that claim to “cure diabetes” in 72 hours.
Since January, he has declared that Covid-19 is “just a flu” and the pandemic is a “propaganda to lock down the world”.
Recent posts in a Facebook group called “The Covid-19 Conspiracy By Dr Biswaroop Roy Chowdhury”, which has 1,900 members, show him photographed with the Delhi Chief Minister and India’s Health Minister. Both politicians are seen holding Mr Chowdhury’s book on his “cure” for Covid-19.
Mr Chowdhury said his “zero money, zero medicines and zero mortality” treatment, based on dietary changes, has “cured over 80 per cent of 21,000 patients of Covid and influenza-like illnesses”.
“My team of 50 people, me, even my child, interacted with hundreds of people with Covid. We didn’t wear masks. My antibody status is negative!” he declared.
The online “doctor” has previously denied the existence of HIV/Aids, and has claimed to treat cancer and diabetes with dietary changes.
In 2015, the Delhi Medical Council’s Anti-Quackery Cell warned the Health Ministry about Mr Chowdhury’s “illegal” claims about curing “an incurable disease”.
Yet, despite his dubious credibility, a growing number of online posts and videos show Indians doubting the efficacy of masks, questioning vaccines and refusing to follow social distancing guidelines.
The Indian Council of Medical Research, which helms anti-Covid-19 policies, has declared it “irresponsible” not to wear masks. Many states impose hefty fines on those without masks in public.
Anti-maskers cite the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) changed guidelines about masks as proof of its incompetence.
In January, WHO said the use of masks by healthy people was “not yet supported by high-quality or direct scientific evidence”. In June, it encouraged the public to wear masks where physical distancing is difficult.
Dr Anant Bhan, a physician and researcher in bioethics and global health, said: “It’s to WHO’s credit that it is updating recommendations as new evidence comes up. Quacks are exploiting this to amplify confusions.”