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How WhatsApp & Baba Ramdev are making mustard oil and lemon prices soar

Wholesale price of mustard oil went up from Rs 12,187/quintal on 12 April to Rs 16,116/quintal on 12 May in Mumbai, while in Delhi, price of lemons rose from Rs 35/kg on 3 April to Rs 100/kg on 3 May.

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New Delhi: When claims that applying mustard oil on the nose can prevent Covid-19 became popular, the wholesale price of packaged mustard oil rose across major markets by over 30 per cent, from Rs 12,000 to Rs 16,000 per quintal.

It also happened when a popular social media post suggested that lemon therapy — two drops of lemon into the nose — could boost immunity and raise oxygen saturation levels. Ditto for the price of amla, a.k.a. the Indian gooseberry, seen as a Vitamin-C powerhouse, the price of which has tripled in just a month despite no substantial shortage.

Clearly, the commodities market is benefiting from the popularity of half-baked facts and unscientific information.

The prices of a number of commodities popular with misinformation providers have at least doubled over a month; many others are seeing increasing exponential inflation. Even fruits rich in Vitamin-C are experiencing a price spiral.

Also read: What are CT scans, the radiation risk from them & do they cause cancer

The social media doctor & inflation

Most of the misinformation has been spread through viral messages and posts on social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook. These quick-fix therapies are being suggested in freely circulating Naturopathy, Ayurveda and Unani prescriptions and text/audio/video advice.

Many prominent personalities have also been instrumental in spreading these spurious therapies amid the surging pandemic. Vijay Sankeshwar, chairman of the logistics company, VRL Group, promoted lemon therapy. A former MP and BJP leader, Sankeshwar claimed that administering lime juice through the nostrils increases blood oxygen levels. He said he had seen his home remedy work in 200 people, including his relatives and colleagues.

Yoga guru Baba Ramdev, speaking at an event on 25 April, prescribed that if one applies mustard oil through the nostril, the novel coronavirus would flow into one’s stomach and be killed by the acids present there.

With the rampant failure of the healthcare system in the ongoing second wave, consumers are increasingly trying to find home remedies to save themselves from the deadly disease.

Dr Pavitra Mohan, a community health physician and paediatrician, co-founder of Basic Health Care Services, informed ThePrint: “Most people in rural areas are resorting to these therapies because they cannot afford the health facilities. The so-called lemon juice remedy is being promoted by quacks because it is easy for people to practice and cheaper than going to a private doctor.”

Vaibhav Mehta, wholesale mustard trader in Dholpur, Rajasthan, said to ThePrint: “The demand for mustard oil has grown by 20 per cent because of the belief that it is an immunity booster. As a result, mustard of the standard quality is being sold at Rs 6,500-7,200 per quintal (100 kilos) across the major mandis of Rajasthan. The prices may further surge to almost Rs 8,000 per quintal as traders, millers and stockists are on a buying spree because of the high demand.”

Mehta added that because of the increase in demand and consumption, even the carryover stock of mustard oil had gone down to 1.5 lakh metric tons (MT) against 5 lakh MT a year ago. “Prices are rising even though daily arrivals of mustard in major markets across the country are 25-30 per cent higher than last year.”

Despite a good harvest, mustard oil prices in April-May shot up to Rs 150-185/kg against Rs 80-85/kg a year ago. According to data from the price monitoring division of the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution accessed by ThePrint, the wholesale price of packaged mustard oil went up from Rs 12,187/quintal on 12 April to Rs 16,116/quintal on 12 May in Mumbai. Similarly, the retail price of mustard oil in the city increased from Rs 128/kg to Rs 171/kg in the corresponding period.

Also read: Doctors hint at cow dung-black fungus link as people turn to gobar for Covid ‘cure’

‘Excess is toxic’ 

Experts are of the opinion that consumption of these commodities might not be as beneficial as they are claimed to be. Seema Singh, chief clinical nutritionist at Fortis Hospital, Vasant Kunj, said to ThePrint: “People have gone on a spree to consume such food items and supplements, but they fail to understand that immunity is not developed in a day or a week, or even in months. Any immunity booster must be taken only under medical supervision. An excess of anything is toxic.”

Priya Kathpal, a consulting nutritionist based out of Mumbai, told ThePrint: “The excessive consumption of these items might upset the gut and force us to go to the hospital when it’s actually not the best time to do so. An excessive focus on certain food items and supplements, moreover, make us deficient in others, thereby weakening our immunity in the long run.”

Like mustard oil, lemons, too, have seen staggering price inflation. According to data from Delhi’s Azadpur mandi accessed by ThePrint, the price of lemons increased from Rs 35/kg on 3 April to Rs 100/kg on 3 May, although the quantity of this commodity coming daily into the mandi dropped slightly from 107 tons to 92 tons on the two days. On 3 May last year, lemons were priced at Rs 20/kg.

Baggamal Chunilal Singh, a wholesale trader of lemon and other fruits at Azadpur Mandi, said to ThePrint: “The lemon harvest season in the country is in two periods — January to April and July to September — so the lean season of May-end and June is yet to arrive, yet the prices have already gone up because of the surging demand. Even the retail prices over just a week have increased from Rs 140-160 to Rs 200/kg.”

Singh said the incoming stocks of lemon had dropped because of the lockdown in Delhi, but the prices went up mainly because of the demand surge. “Even at the Sayajipura mandi in Vadodara (Gujarat), which is one of the major lemon-producing areas of the country, wholesale prices have touched Rs 72-80/kg,” Singh added.

People have been busy buying fruits rich in Vitamin-C to boost their immunity and keep the virus away. Dr Jugal Kishore, professor and head of the Department of Community Medicine at the Vardhman Mahavir Medical College and Safdarjung Hospital, said: “Many of the things people are doing don’t have any scientific basis. Sometimes, these practices such as the mustard oil and lemon drop ‘therapies’ do more harm than good. Even the consumption of Vitamin C-rich fruits helps only to maintain the immune system; it doesn’t have proven anti-viral properties.”

Other vitamins, such as B12 and D, are also required, he points out. Overall nutrition is much more important because it is the basis of the human well-being. “Fortunately, Vitamins C and B are water-soluble, so heavy doses are not a problem, but over-dosage of metals such as zinc and iron can be harmful, especially because most people are taking supplements without appropriate medical supervision,” Dr Kishore said.

Another favourite of self-help enthusiasts is green coconuts, whose retail prices have nearly doubled, from Rs 40-50/kg to Rs 80-100/kg, just between April and May. They reflect the jump in the wholesale prices from Rs 20-35/kg to Rs 50/kg during the same period. Even kiwis and strawberries, which are major sources of Vitamin-C, have registered a massive spike in prices owing to surging demand after the second wave of Covid-19.

“The retail demand from major outlets such as INA Market in Delhi has decreased because of the lockdown, but the direct-from-home demand has shot up by 4-5 times during this period as people are including more fruits in their diet to avoid infection,” Wasim Ali, manager of Irfan Fruits at Azadpur Mandi, pointed out to ThePrint. The effect is evident in the prices.

The wholesale prices of strawberries increased from Rs 70-100/kg in April to Rs 200-225/kg in the second week of May. Those of kiwis have gone up from Rs 90-110/kg to Rs 450-660/kg in a month. “The prices of the two fruits hovered around Rs 60/kg and Rs 80/kg in May last year,” Ali added.

The wholesale prices of oranges have also shot up from Rs 50-80/kg in April to Rs 120/kg today. In the retail market, Malta oranges can be priced anywhere between Rs 150/kg and Rs 220/kg. The story of sweet lemons (mosambi) is no better. Its wholesale prices have risen from Rs 10-20/kg to Rs 35-50/kg in a month; the retail prices consequently have gone up to Rs 70-90/kg. Even the prices of ginger, which is perceived to have medicinal properties, and has seen a sharp rise in consumption, have increased from Rs 22-26/kg to Rs 40/kg in a month.

Also read: Forget coronavirus, homoeopathy can’t cure anything. It’s a placebo, at best

‘Magic’ remedies a concern

More than the fire they have sparked in the agricultural commodities market, it is the serious health consequences of the ‘magic’ remedies that doctors are worried about. Most people who show early signs of Covid-19 first try out these remedies, Dr Jugal Kishore said, and only after the infection turns severe that they come to the hospital. By then, it may be too late.

Dr Seema Singh added: “The people who practise these therapies not only harbour the virus, but also spread it to unsuspecting people. These therapies are not backed by clinical or scientific evidence.”

Hearsay remedies have never done any good to anyone, but in a pandemic situation, you can do more harm than good if you try to self-medicate your way out of an attack of Covid-19. Not many people seem to believe in this truism, so the prices of everyday prices continue to fluctuate upwards.

Myth & reality

Myth: Two drops of lemon juice increases oxygen saturation level in your body, boosts your immunity and protects you from coronavirus.

Reality: The efficacy of this method has not been scientifically proven anywhere in the world. In Raichur, Karnataka, a teacher died after self-administering lime juice through his nostrils. The World Health Organization and the United States National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine have stated that there is no scientific evidence of lemon juice being able to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Myth: If one applies mustard oil through the nostrils, the virus would flow into one’s stomach and be killed by the acids present there. The ‘natural chemicals’ present in the stomach would kill the virus, that is, have an effect similar to the one that a hand wash or hand sanitiser has.

Reality: There is no medical evidence to justify this ‘therapy’. It cannot treat or prevent coronavirus infection. The stomach does have hydrochloric acid in the gastric juices, but its efficacy against the virus has not been tested.

Myth: Consumption of Vitamin C-rich fruits, supplements and green coconut can boost immunity in a person and prevent the spread of the infection.

Reality: Immunity cannot be built overnight or in weeks by consuming such fruits and supplements. Doctors warn that over-consumption of these items can upset the gut and even make the person deficient in other nutrients.

Also read: ‘Fearing Covid’, Indians are popping ivermectin, HCQ, dexamethasone — all self-prescribed


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