Remember how we used to make fun of the US for its widely prevalent anti-vaccine movement? And when they took off their masks during the Covid pandemic to say ‘my body, my choice’? Well, those days are long gone as our very own ‘aatmanirbhar’ anti-vaxxer, anti-mask and Covid-denying movement takes root in India.
For a country that is already struggling with an acute vaccine shortage and a downward trend in vaccinations, these conspiracy theorists can be quite dangerous. Compared to China’s 400 million doses administered so far, India has just given 187 million doses — barely a dent in the second-most populous country in the world.
A quick perusal of family and society WhatsApp groups, Facebook pages, YouTube and even platforms like Telegram will reveal that there is a thriving anti-vaxxer community in India. They upload videos, make posts, give statements to media houses and some have even conducted seminars on the ‘saazish’ that are Covid vaccines.
This is a post-Covid phenomenon. South Asian countries have always been known for their strong confidence in vaccines.
According to a 2019 study by UK-based non-profit organisation, Wellcome Global Monitor, eight in 10 people trusted vaccines in developing countries like India, while only 59 per cent in the West and Europe did so.
Moreover, India has always self-effused the success of its polio vaccination programme, which successfully eradicated the poliovirus from the country after an intensive 16-year programme.
And yet, Covid-19 seems to have dismantled all this trust. Egged on by conspiracy theorists, who seem to have established a monopoly over anti-vaxxer content on social media, several Indians are now wondering whether to get the life-saving vaccines. Rumours are spreading both in urban and rural India.
From Telegram to Instagram
A 16-minute video by a self-proclaimed journalist about the ‘dangers’ of Covid vaccines found its way to my family WhatsApp group and propelled me to enter the veritable black hole that the anti-vaxxer community, which also doubles up as the Covid-denier group, is.
The first thing that strikes one about these accounts is that they are supremely sophisticated in their content. One would assume, and forgive my indulgence of cinematic tropes, that conspiracy theorists would be dodgy people, with sketchier videos. In reality, there is a certain charm and lots of scientific jargon involved in several of these accounts.
One particular Instagram page, ‘Anarchy for freedom’, which has more than 4,000 followers, is a case in point. It seems to be led by one Yohan Tengra, a self-proclaimed ‘conspiracy theorist’ and ‘anarchist’, who was also part of the anti-mask movement in Mumbai last year. Tengra’s argument against masks was that their masks had not been established through clinical trials and that they had long-term ‘health detriments’.
These detriments seem to have evaded doctors for years though, since they wear masks for significant periods of their lives. But facts, science and public health didn’t deter Tengra from saying, “Make a video of yourself burning your mask, & nominate others to do the same.”
A similar vein is followed with his denial of Covid vaccines. According to him, there is a hidden “agenda” — a favourite word of conspiracy theorists across the world it seems — behind these vaccine doses. The reasons for the rejection of Covid vaccines are multiple for this page — the possibility of mRNA vaccines, such as Pfizer and Moderna, ‘altering DNA’ of human beings, poorly tested vaccine efficacy, and a personal favourite of mine, the coronavirus and vaccine humdrum is actually a plan to establish a ‘global world order’ and enslave human populations.
The dangerous thing is that these videos garner anywhere between 2,000 and 5,000 views, and a look at the comments indicates that there are way too many people buying these ‘theories’. In an ‘Ask Me Anything’ video, Tengra bluntly said the Covid vaccines are dangerous and can even lead to deaths. However, he failed to acknowledge that this risk of death is fairly marginal from vaccines and is a risk that any medical procedure or vaccine carries. What he also didn’t say was how vaccines have prevented several Indians from getting Covid or getting a severe form of it.
In the next breath, Tengra talked about how the Illuminati is real and brainwashes people. With this, I rest my case about the page.
Several such pages have cropped up on Instagram and Facebook. Another page called TruthTv, with over 10,000 followers, regularly posts anti-mask and anti-vaccine content. And the axis of these posts is that there is fear mongering by the government about this virus.
On YouTube as well, videos that claim to debunk the Covid ‘conspiracy’ are rampant, and might find their way to your family WhatsApp group. And the interesting thing is the innovative way these people are circumventing the algorithm of Covid fake news trackers by using codewords. So instead of actually saying Covid or coronavirus, they’d just say ‘CV’.
The one-stop platform for conspiracy theorists in India right now is Telegram. According to a report by The Quint, “Conspiracy theorists have found a new home in closed messaging services like Telegram where it is easy for people to look for groups and channels that suit their ideology and join them.”
Another pioneering figure of this community is Rebel Shradha Nand Pati — yes, that is his name — a motivational speaker who doubles up as an anti-vaxxer. In April, a video of his went viral, where he could be seen yelling “kahaan hai corona?”. The video earned him celebrity status among his peers.
Consequence of govt failure
In India, vaccination was always a given and an important part of our lives. It was never questioned, and everyone grew up with the vaccine scars left behind on their arms.
According to Anurag Agrawal, a pulmonologist who heads the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, a division of ICMR, “India does not really have a vaccine problem. It has a people’s outlook problem.”
All of these new videos and posts may seem hilarious, but they are enough to embed a seed of doubt in anyone with the slightest hesitancy. And this is primarily because the Narendra Modi government has been unable to instil much vaccine confidence in the minds of the people.
A major part of the polio vaccine strategy was the massive awareness campaign that the government undertook. The phrase “do boond zindagi ki” and actor Amitabh Bachchan in the polio ads are unforgettable.
Nothing of the sort has been done by the Modi government for Covid — it is instead gloating over ‘daily testing numbers’ rather than vaccine reach. This country suffers from a distrust of modern medicine, preferring home remedies every time, and these ‘theorists’ are capitalising on this distrust.
With no good rebuttal offered by the government, which at this point is too busy saving face, India could be looking at widespread vaccine distrust. Something that it just cannot afford. Science is our greatest hope against this pandemic.
Views are personal.