COVID-19 Denialists and Anti-Maskers Are Gaining Momentum in India

A video showing five anti-maskers burning their face masks went viral. Experts say the movement is at a dangerous level in the country right now.
Pallavi Pundir
Delhi, IN
August 20, 2020, 7:52am
COVID-19 denialism anti maskers india
The online space has always been a hub of dubious claims and conspiracy theories. In India, it's been taking a more aggressive form. Photo by Prakash Singh/ Getty Images

A day after India’s 74th Independence Day, a video featuring four men and one woman went viral on Twitter. In the video, the youngsters talked about freedom from slavery of masks. “This is not independence,” said one of them, pointing at his face mask. “It's a psychological operation to control you,” said another. Towards the end, they all burned their masks.

The video was posted by someone who identified himseld as Dr Biswaroop Roy Chowdhury on his Twitter and YouTube accounts. Before it was taken down for violating Twitter rules on August 17, the video reportedly had 617,000 views.

Chowdhury, who calls himself a medical nutritionist, denied any connection with the video to VICE News. “It must be influenced by what I talk about,” he said over the phone.

Chowdhury is not just anybody. His work includes peddling medical conspiracies and pseudoscientific treatments in India reportedly since 2010. His followers on YouTube used to run in almost a million until it was taken down, twice.

In June, Debabrata Paul, an online fact-checker, flagged the virality of Chowdhury’s claims through his Change.org petition. Back then, Chowdhury had 900,000 subscribers and at least 32 million views on YouTube. His accounts were suspended after being flagged by multiple campaigns and individuals, but new ones came up instantly. Until August 19, Chowdhury’s second YouTube page had 105,000 subscribers and over 1.7 million total views.

Chowdhury’s online pages comprise of video explainers and testimonials of people who took his “treatments”. In January, when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a public health emergency of international concern, Chowdhury started what he calls his own “investigation” into the pandemic.

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The novel coronavirus, he said, is not real. He said wearing a mask cannot protect people from the virus and that it’s not the virus that kills, it’s the fear of psychosis. He insists the novel coronavirus is a hoax created by the media and the pharmaceutical industry.

At one point, he claimed through a video that doctors are using COVID-19 to traffic organs.

biswaroop chowdhury covid denialism anti masker india

Biswaroop Roy Chowdhury's now defuct YouTube page mostly comprised conspiracy theories and unscientific claims. Some of his social media pages are still active.

Chowdhury’s theories are similar to the COVID-19 conspiracy theories and the movement against face masks and public health measures in the United States and Europe. The movement led to demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of believers over the past several months.

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a stern stance on masks, leading to several Indian states making it compulsory in public spaces. There is an ongoing crackdown on mask violators, too.

Despite that, Chowdhury’s popularity is growing, especially in hyperlocal “news” channels on YouTube —which also peddle dubious COVID-19 claims—with millions of subscribers. The viral anti-mask video shows that COVID-19 conspiracy theories have traversed the online bubbles operated by people like Chowdhury. Among his other claims are that HIV/AIDS is a lie, and that diabetes can be cured in 72 hours.

Chowdhury’s popularity also coincides with staunch resistance to criticism of anti-mask beliefs and COVID-19 denialism on social media. On the night of August 16, Balram Vishwakarma, who runs a popular Instagram meme page called Andheri West Shit Posting, uploaded a photo making fun of the viral anti-mask video. Within an hour, he was trolled by an army of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers.

“Many had over 5,000 followers. They sent me death threats, harassed me, and used abusive language against my family,” said the Mumbai-based writer. “Some even traced my address and workplace.”

Vishwakarma said that the majority of the trolls included self-proclaimed TEDx speakers, Ayurvedic doctors, and homoeopathy practitioners. “What scares me is that one can’t predict what these guys will do. There is a tinge of religious fanaticism to their words,” he said.

Paul, the fact-checker behind the Change.org campaign, told VICE News that he faced censorship on Chowdhury’s YouTube channel, where he has been posting warnings since 2017. “It was the same for other whistleblowing comments on his videos and channels,” he said. He added that he also got trolled by Chowdhury’s “cult followers” on Quora.

Paul further noted that anti-mask activism in India draws references to American and English conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers like David Icke, Rashid Buttar and Shiva Ayyadurai.

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Many fact-checkers and misinformation trackers have flagged Chowdhury. A report by Bad Science, an online portal that debunks pseudoscientific claims founded by Paul, dissected his dubious record—from an honorary PhD from a deregistered university in Zambia, to an acting career in B-grade Bollywood films.

Sumaiya Shaikh, the founding editor of fact-checking portal AltNews Science, told VICE News that misinformation and denialism is at a dangerous level at the moment. “There are many like Biswaroop,” she said. “Many don’t exist on social media, practice such quackery at a local, offline level, and influence many people in their communities.”

biswaroop roy chowdhury covid denialism anti masker india

Chowdhury did not address the criticisms against him to VICE News.

Instead, he said all the “evidence” to his claims are in his recently published book, N.I.C.E Way to Cure COVID-19—NICE standing for “Zero Medicine Money Mortality”. “Prove me wrong for any of the above and get INR 1 Lakh (USD 1,340) as a prize,” he writes in the preface.

The INR 1 Lakh reward also stands for anyone who can prove his medical credentials wrong, said Chowdury. He equated his stance with that of US President Donald Trump. “When Trump was not in line with the WHO, he was criticised. It’s happening to me too,” he said. Comments on Chowdhury’s YouTube continue to range from congratulatory to those equating him with God.

While pseudoscience is prevalent in India, its popularity has grown during COVID-19.

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At the beginning of the outbreak, Prime Minister Modi widely recommended Ayurveda to ward off the virus. News reports state that the Indian government’s Indian Council of Medical Research approved at least 19 Ayurvedic combinations, including cow-urine pills and turmeric, for clinical trials. The Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy legitimise alternate medicine systems.

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Shaikh told VICE News that COVID-19 denialism is also an offshoot of the Indian government’s pandemic response. India currently has 2.7 million confirmed positive COVID-19 cases—the third highest in the world. The Government of India still denies community transmission. Prominent political figures, including PM Modi, also held controversial religious events amid the pandemic.

Falling for denialism, added Shaikh, is like falling for misinformation. “While people think such denialism is only limited to politically conservatives, it can also be found in liberals,” she said. She told VICE News that this should not be treated as ignorance. “It just means the information they received challenged their earlier world view that the disease is highly dangerous.”

Indian officials have been cracking down on unscientific claims. In a prominent case, Indian yoga guru Baba Ramdev was banned from promoting and selling his Ayurvedic “cure” for COVID-19. In May, a man claiming to have found a herbal cure for the virus was arrested. In March, a self-proclaimed medical practitioner, Healer Baskar, was arrested for calling COVID-19 a conspiracy to reduce population by the illuminati, and giving out fake remedies.

Chowdhury said all the “wrong publicity” might land him in jail one day, too. “But I’m not in the ‘business’ of COVID-19,” he added. “I just recommend a fruit-and-vegetable diet. These do not come under the purview of any law.”

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