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Our Relationship With Medicine: A COVID-19 Version

Backtrack to February 2020. A portion of our country had no idea about the virus, its symptoms and the fatal aftermath brewing in China. Masking was considered propaganda. The COVID-19 virus seemed far too distant from us. Warning calls from WHO about the escalation of COVID-19 into a pandemic was ignored. There were positive cases already in the country. The fear of the unknown loomed over us, yet we were completely unaware.

The fag-end of March last year saw the reality be acknowledged. The informal sector was abandoned. Schools and offices were closed. Grocery stores ran out of food items. Sanitisers were being hoarded. Masks were unavailable. Ambiguous lockdowns were imposed on fear-stricken masses. The death of liveliness established the gravity of the situation. Added to this, the lack of knowledge about the virus, how it was transmitted, the extent of fatality and more, had rendered people irrationally afraid.

Should industries capitalize on the 'fear of death'?
Should industries capitalize on the 'fear of death'?

Fear is an efficient motivator behind purchase decisions. Many brands have adopted this tactic to boost their sales. We all know it works. It might be ethical to use these things when the fear used is the fear of “missing out” or any other fear that has superficial consequences. However, when the fear of death exists, should industry sectors capitalise on it? With no qualms? What if the solution they offer is not the long-term solution but soothes the short-term anxiety? Lastly, specifically to pharmaceutical companies, are these medical products curing symptoms or are they curing anxiety?

We could argue that the fear exists before the company introduces solutions. By that deduction, it could be fair to say that we cannot blame companies for just catering to the demand. However, when we look at a product like Coronil, introduced by Patanjali and sponsored by the Health Ministry of the country, that promises to ‘cure’ COVID-19, we realize that making binary distinctions between business and ethics is easier said than done. In the first half of 2021, Coronil was advertised as a “WHO-approved” cure to COVID-19 when WHO had never issued any statement sponsoring traditional medicine for COVID-19. There were arguments that the public is smarter than we perceive them to be. Even the fear of fickle mortality could not propel them to lose their rational sense. Well, then the next sentence is for those who support this argument. According to the company’s official data released in October 2021, Coronil recorded sales worth Rs 250 crore in four months. It sold around 2.5 million Coronil kits in India as well as abroad. The product is advertised now as an immunity booster but for eight months (from June 2020 to February 2021), it was advertised as a ‘proof-based’ drug to cure COVID-19.

Can we rely on science?
Do humans trust science too much?

Coronil is only one example of a pertinent problem. Supply chains during the pandemic were affected, creating delays for legitimate products to be shipped out. The demand in the market existed but there was no supply of adequate products. This led to the creation of illegal online pharmacies and products like Coronil to escape scrutiny. Even if the products were manufactured by legitimate producers, the consumerist tradition ensures that it garners sales. People will continue to buy it not because they expect it to impact them physiologically, but just to feel the security that they are consuming everything possible to protect themselves from the virus. It is a desperate and financially unsound effort to soothe their anxiety about a virus that renders people lifeless in the blink of an eye.

Although this article is about business and ethics during COVID-19, this feeling of adopting solutions, even if they are not rationally sound, for their problems, extends to any health threat. There is also the fact that we as humans, trust science too much to acknowledge its drawbacks and flaws. We always expect science to be this omnipotent force that we can sweep our problems under but COVID-19 is the best example to establish how little science can be relied on.